“The White Version of Cheating?” Ethical and Social Equity Concerns of Cognitive Enhancing Drug Users in Higher Education

  • Ross AikinsEmail author


So-called cognitive enhancing drugs (CEDs) are relatively common in higher education, especially among students who are white, male, and attend highly selective institutions. Using qualitative data from a diverse sample of 32 students at an elite university, the present study aims to examine whether students perceive CED use to be advantageous, equitable, and fair. Participants were either medical or nonmedical users of CEDs—primarily ADHD stimulant medications such as Adderall. Data were first coded openly, then axially into themes, and finally arranged to respond to research aims around social and ethical concerns. Ethical perceptions and behavioral justifications varied by participants’ personal use frequency, class standing, and perceived social norms surrounding CEDs. Among the salient themes to emerge was the belief that CED use is a lesser or more tenable form of cheating, that the vagueness and prevalence of ADHD justifies nonmedical use, and that above all, CEDs are advantageous. Some participants expressed concern about the advantageousness of CEDs when coupled with a perceived imbalance of their use among students from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds, with one calling it “the white version of cheating.” Implications for cheating and drug use prevention are discussed, situating cognitive enhancement as an emerging ethical and social equity concern in higher education.


Cognitive enhancement Nonmedical use of prescription stimulants Academic integrity Ethics Cheating Higher education Social equity 



The development of this manuscript was supported in part by research grant T32DA007233 from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, National Institutes of Health, and from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools. The National Institute on Drug Abuse, National Institutes of Health, and U.S. Department of Education had no role in the study design, collection, analysis, or interpretation of the data, writing of the manuscript, or the decision to submit the paper for publication. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the U.S. Department of Education, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, or the National Institutes of Health.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of Interest

The author declares no conflicts of interest.


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© Springer Nature B.V. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Graduate School of EducationUniversity of PennsylvaniaPhiladelphiaUSA

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