Although I largely agree with the generalized idea that Jonathan pointed out here, namely that student loans are not aid (even if they are originated by the Federal government), I believe that one can make the case that some loans are aid. Think about the role that NGOs such as The World Bank and IMF play in “aiding” underdeveloped countries with financial loans that they would not be able to obtain through the market due to a poor institutional structure and the poor fiscal condition and credit constraints that follow it. Perhaps it is fallacy to refer to this type of assistance (remember that I stated that recipient countries likely cannot obtain loans through private markets, at least not at rates that will enable them to achieve a sustainable “reversal of fortunes” to borrow a phrase from Daron Acemoglu) as aid, but it is in the sense of considering the savings that the country is realizing by receiving below market interest rates for its particular situation. Note that I am not endorsing these policies, merely pointing them out.
Similarly, it is a fact that some students are from low-income families that have neither the financial resources or borrowing capacity to finance a college education. There are private students loans available from commercial banks for such students, with the risk of default pricing the interest rate well above the 3.4-6.8% that government loan applies. Thus, the interest rate savings from taking a government as opposed to a commercial loan could in fact be classified as financial
aid – at least to an economist who likes to account for unrealized opportunity costs. Of course, one also has to think that some students who take loans from the federal government may be able to borrow at a lower cost if a pure market existed. These students, although likely small in number, are paying a premium.
Daniel Luzer of the Washington Monthly brought to my attention this piece by Mike Konczal wrote for Salon in which Konczal asks the rather obvious question: “Do we make both a conceptual and analytical mistake when we refer to student loans as a form of ‘financial aid’?” Of course, there’s nothing original in Konczal’s pointing out the problem of identifying student loans as a form of “aid.” It goes without saying, in my opinion, that appending the label of “aid” to student loans is, at best, somewhat misleading, particularly for students who are not well-versed in matters financial. Having said that, however, I have very little confidence that this problem, though widely acknowledged, will be corrected. As I pointed out a year and a half ago, someone who later became a prominent U.S. Department of Education official made essentially the same point Konczal makes now and yet, even after that official left the department, ED continues to classify student loans as a form of aid, on par with grants.
Colorado State University’s Global Campus recently became the first American university to decide to grant transfer credits to students who have completed a massively open online course (MOOC). Specifically, they are granting credit to those students who completed Udacity’s “Introduction to Computer Science: Building a Search Engine” and took a proctored test. This is a small, but very significant step in the quest to get the learning undertaken in online MOOCs to be recognized by major American universities as credit-worthy.
Two of the biggest MOOC providers, Udacity and EdX, have recently come to agreements with Pearson VUE for students to take proctored exams in locations where identity can be verified and potential cheating monitored. This service comes with a fee of $89, according to the New York Times. The clear benefit is that students are able to obtain college credit towards a degree for only $89, saving a substantial amount of money from the costs of tuition and other higher education expenses.
If MOOCs are to stay relevant in the world of higher education, they must adjust to offer some sort of official results that are recognized by other schools and by employers as valid. They would offer an excellent platform from which students can learn the basics of many fields as well as potentially the more advanced concepts of some areas as well. In the humanities and laboratory sciences, however, that require more face-to-face time, students will still need to meet in smaller groups to truly grasp the finer details of their field, but MOOCs would still offer a very good starting point from which students can learn the background necessary to build upon in later studies. On top of being able to offer these courses to large numbers of students, MOOCs can do so at a much lower cost than traditional colleges. If post-secondary education were to start off at MOOCs, whose classes can be transferred in as prerequisites at traditional schools, students would be able to complete their degrees while spending less time at a traditional college and, thus, at less cost.
The American History Association has passed down a new recommendation calling for increased transparency among post-graduate history programs concerning job placement. The AHA wants this information to be publically available so that undergraduates and other potential applicants to a specific program know the facts about future career prospects in their intended fields of study. Many schools already provide some sort of list, but these are usually very inadequate, only reporting the highlights from a graduating class while not showing graduates who are unemployed or underemployed. This recommendation is particularly timely considering the very poor state of the job market for liberal arts academics, particularly in history-related fields.
Some historians have gone so far as to call for a reduction in the acceptance rate of graduate students to bring the number of PhDs more into align with the job market. Another option is the restructuring of history graduate programs to remove the perceived stigma of non-academic careers, such as museum curatorship, from many departments across the country. Many historians, however, are not so open to change. They point out the AHA has suggestion power only and cannot enforce its recommendations of transparency. While true, this kind of closed-minded thinking leads to the maintenance of an unsustainable status quo among historians. Department administrators must approach issues of post-graduate admissions differently than in the past in the face of major changes in the academic landscape.
Despite foot-dragging by history department administrators, the AHA is to be commended for its pursuit of transparency and is a model for academic groups across disciplines. By making information such as job placement of alumni publically available, potential students will have greater information before they apply. By providing information on the outputs of a program (i.e., job placement, income, etc), universities will give their prospective students the tools they need to make a decision on which school would serve their goals best.
It seems to me that the real danger to the traditional, degree-based model of higher education posed by Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) lies not so much in the possibility that MOOCs might provide a dramatically lower cost alternative for obtaining a degree (or even more broadly, higher learning). Rather, MOOCs can do more damage to the traditional model by revealing its weaknesses. Take, for instance, the results of an edX survey of its MOOC students (as reported by Steve Kolowich for InsideHigherEd this week):
perhaps the most interesting piece of data is that 80 percent of respondents said they had taken a “comparable” course at a traditional university prior to working their way through Circuits & Electronics.
Of that 80 percent, nearly two-thirds said the MOOC version was better than the “comparable” course they claimed to already have taken. Only 1 percent said it was worse.
Now perhaps this result is an artifact reflecting that prior familiarity with material is more important than the platform through which the material is presented, in terms of student perceptions. On the other hand, if the quality of instruction and material is indistinguishable between an MOOC and a traditional class, colleges and universities will have even more trouble explaining to a concerned public why the tuition bill must be measured in the tens of thousands of dollars.
As online courses become more and more prevalent in the world of higher education, professors and administrators must heighten their awareness of new forms of cheating and attempt to overcome the challenges presented by students in a remote location. Without the familiarity of a classroom setting, even that of a massive lecture hall, there is little to no guarantee that the students enrolled for an online class are actually the ones doing the work or that they are doing the work without inappropriate outside help. While much of the information about cheating in online courses remains anecdotal, it is quite clear that it is becoming quite a large problem. Some of this however, can be avoided if professors rethink the format of the classes they offer online. Some students, of course, will always attempt to cheat the system, but, as it stands now, cheating in online courses is facilitated by a lack of employment of strategy to combat the problem.
One particular problem deals with the potential for cheating on homework from online courses. While this generally is viewed as a more minor infraction than, say, cheating on an exam or a paper, cheating on assigned homework may be indicative of a larger problem. It also certainly is an example of how students can be self-destructive when it comes to their own education. The student’s goal appears to be the degree, not the education. No one thinking rationally would expect to be able to lose weight and to become physically fit without a strenuous exercise routine. The same is true of education. Learning takes time. It is not something that can be meaningfully done in a cram session or through dishonest methods. Students may be able to scam the system in introductory level courses, but as classes progress, the building blocks established early on in education will be missing and ultimately a cheating student will fail.
On a more basic level, students in online courses lack the incentives to complete work that students in face-to-face class settings have. One study demonstrates that students in online courses hardly ever complete ungraded assignments offered in the class. In a traditional class, the assignment might be reviewed in class and thus a student might be encouraged to complete it. In an online class, however, the peer pressure to complete an assignment so as not be unprepared for class is nonexistent. Online classrooms, in this instance, do not promote learning as well as a traditional classroom.
Even graded homework assigned in an online setting is prone to cheating. Surveys show that as many as 43 percent of students admit to cheating on homework by obtaining some unauthorized outside help. A study by a professor at California Polytechnic State University shows that when there is a technological buffer between the student and the assignment students tend to not view their actions as cheating.
Cheating in online courses is, of course, not limited to homework. It extends to exams as well. A recent blog by Jeffrey R. Young of the Chronicle details the methods some students have used to cheat on online exams to assure they would receive an A. Students have had the value of good grades driven into their heads, but grades are not an end to themselves. This point has been forgotten by many students and even by many educators. Grades are a metric of how much a student has learned and should be treated as such. For grades to have meaning, they must reflect real learning, not just rote fulfillment of credit requirements.
The difficulties in dealing effectively with plagiarism pose a very large problem for college educators who struggle to find the balance between policing cheating in their classroom while still fulfilling their primary duty of educating those students who actually desire to be there. As referenced in my earlier blog on custom essays, a long-running study at Clemson University found that 62 percent of undergraduates have cheated in some way on a college written assignment. One common method used by many professors is the software Turnitin. This program, used by over 10,000 institutions worldwide, takes a student’s paper and compares to known publications and to other students’ papers to determine the originality of the document.
Turnitin, therefore, seems almost like a miracle drug to cure the ills of plagiarism. This, however, is certainly not the case. Software like Turnitin certainly leads to its own issues, some of which are inherent in the program’s shortcomings while others are due to outside difficulties. Turnitin’s website states that its databases include 20 billion websites, 220 million student papers and 100 million articles from textbooks and other publishers. While this certainly seems impressive, Google lists over 1 trillion websites, so Turniton’s database only represents a fraction of the information that is available. If teachers fall into the trap of relying entirely on Turnitin to catch every instance of plagiarism as opposed to their own intuition and expertise, they are taking a very large chance that cheaters will fall through the cracks. Turnitin is also vulnerable to being fooled by copying and pasting followed by reliance on a thesaurus to vary to exact wording from an original without actually representing any of the student’s original work.
Other more unseen difficulties exist when it comes to policing plagiarism in a college classroom. This is clearly demonstrated in the story of New York University computer science professor, Panagiotis Ipeirotis who published a blog entitled “Why I will never pursue cheating again” in 2011. The post was subsequently taken down but not before it caused quite a stir. Ipeirotis used the Turnitin software and caught 22 of 108 students cheating in the process. This resulted in substantial amounts of class time being dedicated to addressing plagiarism which took away from the primary goals of the class. Students who were not cheating in his class became disillusioned as was evidenced in his lower than usual performance on student evaluations. Ipeirotis’ experience led him to be less effective as a teacher.
How, then, are professors supposed to deal with plagiarism in their classrooms? One strategy that has been attempted time and again, but rarely frequently enough to have any lasting impact is to educate students on what plagiarism is, why it is a big deal and how to avoid it. Without a clear understanding of the nature of their infraction, there is little reason for students to be careful about plagiarism. While this may not dissuade the most serious offenders, a thorough education and frequent reminders of cheating may help prevent students from rationalizing their behavior or from plagiarizing accidentally. In order to counteract more serious culprits, Professor Ipeirotis advises making assignments that are more difficult to plagiarize by arranging for papers to be turned in publically so as to add a degree of peer-enforcement. While this may work in some cases, it may put some students at a distinct disadvantage if they are inherently self-conscious about their writing in the first place. On the other hand, if assignments were worded in such a way to require students use the materials from lecture or other assignments, some methods of cheating such as the custom essay would become much less effective.
When dealing with plagiarism, professors have a very difficult line to tread attempting to police cheating while still maintaining an open environment in which learning may be encouraged. The tragedy in all of this, as with all cheating, is that honest students get shorted of their professor’s attentions and time. If for no other reason, cheating must be discouraged for the sake of the honest students.
Today the Texas Public Policy Foundation announced that it is launching a new website, SeeThruEdu.com. The site is will feature writings on higher education reform from a variety of educators and policy analysts, including CCAP’s own Joshua Hall and Ronald Trowbridge (Trowbridge is also Assistant Editor of SeeThruEdu.com). Richard Vedder will also occasionally contribute, starting with a piece published today titled, “American Higher Education: Is It in Crisis?” We look forward to seeing our readers over at SeeThruEdu!
Two years ago, the Chronicle for Higher Education posted a blog written by Ed Dante, “The Shadow Scholar.” This article caused quite a stir with coverage from major news outlets such as the New Yorker, the New York Times and ABC News. In his article, Dante claims to have written over 5,000 pages of scholarship for every level of scholarship and in almost every field and, yet, he does not get credit for any of it. The credit, the grade and the degree go to his clients who pay him to do their work for them. According to International Center for Academic Integrity at Clemson University, 62 percent of undergraduate students admit to have cheated on written assignments. That may be simply copying and pasting from another source to the more extreme buying custom essays from services like that of The Shadow Scholar.
A simple Google search for “custom essays” reveal pages upon pages of companies that offer assistance to the struggling student for a price. Many of these sites offer a “100% Plagiarism Free” guarantee in the attempt to convince the potential client that there is nothing wrong with what they are doing. Some have written in defense of this service blaming universities and professors for “forcing people to do things they do not want to do.” This writer argues that “shadow scholarship… is nothing more than a service provided to students who are looking to reduce the inefficiencies of their state-dictated education.”
A recent Wall Street Journal article explored the benefits a liberal arts education can have for business majors, a group who notoriously have shunned things like essay writing in their curriculum in favor of concentrating on the nuts and bolts of the business world. Some business leaders, however, have begun to complain about the lack of critical thinking skills. These skills are sharpened and honed by the hallmarks of a liberal education, such as essay writing, debates, argument dissection, etc.
Through use of services like the Shadow Scholar, students deprive themselves of the skills that would serve them well in later life even if they do not recognize it at the time. If a student, for example, is required to take a classics course, the question often arises as to why he should care about the ancient Greeks or Romans. It is often difficult for students to see that while studying Ptolemy and Caesar, they are, in fact, learning to create a logical whole out of seemingly disjointed pieces of evidence. The ability to reason logically is of profound importance to almost anyone in any field. The liberal arts are the tool by which students develop their ability to reason.
Beyond the ability to reason, another skill developed in the process of essay writing and other such college educational tools is the obvious: writing. I do not necessarily mean writing literature, poetry or even research papers, but rather that of a much more mundane variety: emails, memos and the like. These forms of communication may not seem like they require much in the way of training, but a formal education which includes writing surely helps to improve the clarity and content of these documents. In a world where face-to-face communication occurs less and less frequently in favor of electronic, written communication, the ability to be clear and succinct is of utmost importance.
Baseball’s Steroid Era has been a black eye for the sport causing a drastic change in the way fans see the game. Exciting events such as Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa’s race for Roger Maris’ vaunted 61 single season home run record in 1998 and Barry Bonds’ surpassing of Henry Aaron’s hallowed 755 career home runs are now viewed with suspicion (at best) and quite possibly as illegitimate. The rampant use of performance enhancing drugs in the national pastime has led to well-publicized hearings in Congress, several trials featuring some of the game’s elite and a complete reworking of the sport’s testing policy which put in place very severe punishments for failing a drug test. The ill-gained competitive advantage gained by the use of steroids in baseball caused a public outcry against cheating in one of the United States’ most revered traditions.
Why then, when we cannot stand cheating in such venues as Fenway Park and Yankee Stadium, do we sit by idly while performance enhancers routinely reside in the classrooms of our colleges and universities. These things may not be drugs, but certainly are intended to give students a competitive advantage? They include illicitly gained answer keys, custom essays, using the internet to find answers for a take-home exam and any other number of cheating methods employed by students. Studies such as Klein et al. (2006) demonstrate that approximately 7 out of 10 American college students cheat. The reasons students cheat are primarily to gain a perceived advantage in gaining access to limited positions in business, government, medicine, etc. Students who might otherwise be indisposed to cheat have been driven to in order to maintain a “level playing field.” For many of these students, the point of a college education seems to be simply to get a post-graduate career, as opposed to obtaining the skills and knowledge offered by their school that would benefit them in the future. College, therefore, has become a hoop that must be jumped through before a meaningful career can commence. It is a great tragedy of modern American education that our students do not recognize the value of the education they are meant to receive.
As demonstrated in Klein et al. (2006), one of the biggest problems with student cheating and getting a firm grasp on the subject lies in the differentiation between those actions that are illegitimate cheating and those that are legitimate help. Websites like PaperHelp.org purport to offer services that help students complete their course work in a timely manner. However, these services are often used as a substitute for learning as opposed to actual aids. It is here that the difference between cheating and help lies: the student’s intent. If, in seeking help, they legitimately wish to further their learning and to deepen their understanding of a subject, then it does not fall into the category of cheating. If a student attempts to gain some advantage over fellow students by bringing in outside sources not permitted by the instructor, implicitly or explicitly, it constitutes cheating.
In the following series of blogs, I will examine and address some of the more current and relevant issues in academic integrity. I will look into some of the more prevalent and technology driven forms of cheating, including academic dishonesty in online classes and the numerous custom essay sites that have sprung up online. I will also look into methods being used to combat cheating in major American universities, such as the plagiarism detecting software Turnitin and the tried and true Honor Code. From there, I will explore some potential options for dealing with cheating as an institutional problem. While there is certainly no one-size-fits-all solution, there are numerous improvements that can be made to more effectively deal with academic dishonesty and the gaining of unfair advantage by one student over another.