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.
Bloomberg Businessweek examined student-loan debt and the burden it places on students. After students hear that student-loan debt is “good debt” and college is sold as something with guaranteed value, the reality sometimes isn’t as rosy. Writer Peter Coy quotes Richard Vedder:
Some day, low-cost online education that requires zero student borrowing may displace a big chunk of today’s entrenched establishment. The fact that it hasn’t yet says a lot about the durability of colleges and universities, several of which predate the country’s founding. Rather than places of learning, colleges have become expensive screening mechanisms. It’s not what you learn in four years at Harvard University that impresses potential employers; it’s the fact that you got into Harvard in the first place.
So maybe the real problem is that credentialism has trumped learning. That drives people to get degrees simply to displace others who don’t have degrees, says Richard Vedder, who directs the Center for College Affordability and Productivity. He notes that the U.S. has more than 100,000 janitors with college degrees and 16,000 degree-holding parking lot attendants.
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A Newsweek cover story by Megan McArdle on college as an investment heavily quotes Richard Vedder:
The price of a McDonald’s hamburger has risen from 85 cents in 1995 to about a dollar today. The average price of all goods and services has risen about 50 percent. But the price of a college education has nearly doubled in that time. Is the education that today’s students are getting twice as good? Are new workers twice as smart? Have they become somehow massively more expensive to educate?
Perhaps a bit. Richard Vedder, an Ohio University economics professor who heads the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, notes that while we may have replaced millions of filing clerks and payroll assistants with computers, it still takes one professor to teach a class. But he also notes that “we’ve been slow to adopt new technology because we don’t want to. We like getting up in front of 25 people. It’s more fun, but it’s also damnably expensive.”
Vedder adds, “I look at the data, and I see college costs rising faster than inflation up to the mid-1980s by 1 percent a year. Now I see them rising 3 to 4 percent a year over inflation. What has happened? The federal government has started dropping money out of airplanes.” Aid has increased, subsidized loans have become available, and “the universities have gotten the money.” Economist Bryan Caplan, who is writing a book about education, agrees: “It’s a giant waste of resources that will continue as long as the subsidies continue.”…
“We have an academic arms race going on,” says Vedder. “Salaries have done pretty well. Look at the president of Yale. Compare his salary now with his salary in 2000.” In 2000, Richard Levin earned $561,709. By 2009, it was $1.63 million. “A typical university today has as many administrators as faculty.”
Vedder also notes the decrease in teaching loads by tenured faculty, and the vast increase in nonacademic amenities like plush dorms and intercollegiate athletics. “Every campus has its climbing wall,” he notes drily. “You cannot have a campus without a climbing wall.”…
Ah, but how do we get there from here? With better public policy, hopefully, but also by making better individual decisions. “Historically markets have been able to handle these things,” says Vedder, “and I think eventually markets will handle this one. If it doesn’t improve soon, people are going to wake up and ask, ‘Why am I going to college?’?”
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Associate Director Josh Hall spoke to The Fiscal Times concerning the effect of college dormitories on rising tuition:
“If you look at the demographics, all of higher ed is fighting over fewer students,” says Joshua Hall of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity. Students who can pay full fare, without need-based tuition discounts and substantial school aid, are especially in demand. And they’re the ones most selective in their shopping for a school, he adds.
All of the extras have to be paid for by someone. From 2001 to 2011, average room and board at public four-year colleges rose by about 3 percent a year beyond the rate of inflation, according to data from the College Board. But Hall says the increased housing costs also may be leaking over into tuition increases, which have averaged almost 6 percent a year above inflation at those schools in the last decade: “If you have [high-end dorms], you can get people who are willing to pay more and so you’re able to charge a higher [tuition] price.”
Hall also believes the growth of student loans may be making it easier for students to make expensive choices now that they may be sorry for later. As of the first quarter of this year, the average student loan balance is more than $24,000, and the student loan total now exceeds credit card debt. On-campus room and board at public 4-year colleges costs $8,887 a year on average, according to the College Board, so with a 6.8 percent interest on loans, the price of that first year on campus turns into $12,273 before adjusting for inflation by the end of a 10-year repayment term—a 38 percent increase.
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California Watch interviewed Richard Vedder for an article on students subsidizing other students and the questions of fairness such practices raise:
“Schools have become more aggressive in this income-redistribution aspect of higher education,” said Richard Vedder, director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity in Washington, D.C. “There’s an economic-theory dimension to this, which is that there’s always a small class of students who have a lot of money, and the income-maximizing enrollment manager wants to zap it to these kids.”…
“At the large research universities, the subsidization of graduate students is monstrously large,” Vedder said. “A student in a Ph.D. program sits in seminars of six and eight students taught by a professor making $150,000 a year and gets an extremely costly education. At the same university, the freshman who’s taking Introduction to Psychology, Introduction to Economics, sitting in lectures of 400 people – these kids are paying the same tuition.”
While we await the final verdict of Harvard’s investigation into allegations of widespread cheating in the undergraduate “Introduction to Congress” class, there has been quite a bit of public discussion over what needs to be done about a problem of such “unprecedented… scope and magnitude,” to borrow the wording of Harvard undergraduate dean Jay Harris.
If I do not miss my guess, Harvard’s solution to this scandal will be to institute a new required course. Of course, I offer this partly in jest, but I should note that the university did inform the New York Times that “it planned to increase efforts to teach students about academic integrity.” Higher education is not particularly good at some things, but it is incontestable that higher ed is second to none when it comes to offering courses on any conceivable subject. Why should the topic of cheating be any different? Will such a new course solve the problem? I’m not so sure but from higher ed’s perspective, it is the perfect antidote. After all, a whole class is a whale of a lot more coverage than just a simple honor code. Plus, Harvard would be able to charge tuition for the class.
Brad Wolverton and Andrea Fuller of the Chronicle of Higher Education filed a report recently that demonstrates a disturbing trend among major American universities: that college presidents may not have clear authority over their athletic programs at their schools. Reviewing the contractual language of the presidents and chancellors of the 25 schools with the largest athletic programs in the country, they found that not one head administrator had explicit powers of oversight over sports. This includes schools that have faced major NCAA sanctions in recent months, such as Penn State, where even new president Rodney A. Erickson does not have power over the bruised athletics department. When it comes to sports, presidents tend to use the lack of specific contractual language to avoid “rock[ing] to boat with boards, benefactors, and political supporters who want to win.”
Recently, the NCAA’s Board of Directors put forth a proposal that would allow them to specifically name presidents of universities and others with oversight of athletics in infractions findings even if the individuals were not directly involved in the allegations. Clearly the NCAA itself assumes that leaders of universities have control over their athletics departments, but it seems that in fact as well as practice, this is often not the case. An anonymous president is referenced in The Chronicle story arguing that he did not want contractual language about athletics because he felt that doing so would be to hold himself responsible for things and people outside his control.
There is something seriously wrong with the picture painted in Wolverton and Fuller’s article. One of the most visible branches of many American universities appears to be without real oversight so long as the teams win. This winning-first culture is a large part of the problem facing many major universities who are facing sanctions against their athletic departments. Sports are part of the college experience, but many of the individuals entrusted with the maintenance of these institutions do not want to take on the responsibility of policing the most public face of the school. In doing so, presidents and chancellors are opening themselves and, more importantly, their schools to a damaged reputation and to strong critique from outside. It is the job of these presidents and chancellors to maintain and improve their institutions of higher learning and to do so they must take control of the sports programs.
While Andrew Hacker’s New York Times op-ed, “Is Algebra Necessary?” came out a month ago, it’s well worth the time to go back and re-read it every once in a while. His money quote:
I fully concur that high-tech knowledge is needed to sustain an advanced industrial economy. But we’re deluding ourselves if we believe the solution is largely academic.
In this, Hacker is spot on and I think he’s hinting at what I increasingly view as the major failing we have in the education sector today: the propensity to view the solution to educational problems as a matter of academics. In reality, though, while academics are of great importance, it is not appropriate to conflate academics with education. Sure, I think they often do overlap but I view “academics” as a subset of education, a subset which not all students want or need in terms of their education. The problem with viewing education as fully synonymous with academics is that we wind up getting education which is expensive (an excellent academic course of study is, after all, an expensive endeavor) but, because of its focus on a model implicitly designed to prepare the student for a narrow, academic trajectory, one in which almost a majority of Americans don’t view as the main reason they need a college degree.
Earlier this month, NPR’s “Talk of the Nation” hosted Augustana College (IL)’s Mark Salisbury, for a conversation on study abroad programs and whether they are worth it. It’s worth a listen.
The Institute for Economic Affairs (IEA) in London – one of the most prominent and influential think tanks in the world – recently released The Profit Motive in Education: Continuing the Revolution, a monograph consisting of eleven essays related to the role the private sector and profits in transforming the education ecosystem. The volume is edited and includes two essays by Professor James Stanfield, who assembled a diverse and impressive team of contributing authors with backgrounds that encompass the worlds of academe, government, private sector and public policy. The volume is divided into three sections.
The first section contains two essays, one by Stanfield and the other by St. Lawrence University Professor Steven Horowitz, that introduce the reader to some key concepts and issues related to the profit motive in education. Both authors suggest that there remains a stubborn hostility and outright resentment towards private sector involvement in education. Critics of for-profit education generally contend that the private sector is willing to sacrifice educational quality and the interests of the student in order to generate a short-term profit, an argument that Stanfield suggests is largely unsubstantiated by economic theory, empirical evidence or sound reasoning. Horowitz elaborates that profits in the education sector can be expected to promote competition and innovation that lead to an increase in the quality of educational provision, better value for the customer, and a more efficient allocation of resources, a point that CCAP elaborated on it is 2010 study, For-Profit Higher Education: Growth, Innovation and Regulation.
The second section, Lessons from the UK and Abroad, contains three essays from education entrepreneurs who describe their experiences starting a profit-seeking school, and two essays that discuss findings from research on private sector education. The three education entrepreneurs offer a glimpse into the challenging political and regulatory environment that they faced in launching a private school, with Toby Young describing the process as trying to navigate through a “bureaucratic labyrinth… [where] the ground keeps shifting beneath your feet.” In addition, they described how a competitive market challenged them to offer innovate educational programs that are in high demand and tout successful outcomes. Stanfield describes how the private sector and profit motive have opened the doors to affordable education for millions of previously disenfranchised poor in the developing world, a task that development agencies working with governments have failed to do.
The last article in the section is a contribution that I co-authored with Richard Vedder and Adam Lucchesi discussing our research on for-profit higher education in the U.S. In particular, we describe the remarkable growth of the sector over the past two decades, the volatile regulatory environment that it has faced. In addition, we offer a number of policy lessons for the UK, including a reduction of protectionist measures such as barriers to entry, differentiated regulations, and discriminatory subsidies in order to level the competitive playing field and make private investment and innovation more attractive, as well as calling for greater disclosure of information by schools regarding student outcomes in order to reduce the asymmetries that leave students and parents lacking important information needed to make informed decisions.
The third and final section, New Models of Education, features four essays describing alternative education market structures. Anders Hultin asks why there is no IKEA in education, suggesting that the success of the global brand to offer affordable, quality furniture could be applied to education if the market were more open to private investment. J.R. Shackleton makes the case for the privatization of business schools, noting that “[T]here is surely something of a paradox in the fact the mainstream business education…largely aimed at preparing young people…for work in a market economy…should be in the hands of institutions which do not fully engage with that economy and for which there is no profit objective to focus and discipline their collective efforts.” In the final two essays of the volume, Frederick Hess andTom Vander Ark describe how creative destruction needs to be fully unleashed in order to fundamentally transform how education is delivered, suggesting that current one-size-fits all model is inefficient, antiquated and failing to meet the needs of a diverse student population and that technological innovation hold the promise to overcoming all of these problems, but will only be realized when the private sector is embraced in education.
Adam Smith famously noted in his treatise The Wealth of Nations, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” Given this widely accepted proposition as a rigorous argument for the organizing of economic activity around markets, why then has modern society come to rely on the presumed benevolence of bureaucrats, politicians, school administrators and teachers in expecting its children to receive an education that will prepare them for the challenges of the future, rather than the private marketplace?
For many in society, profit and education are viewed as diabolical opposites, presumably as a matter of principle. For persons holding this perspective, it is often implicitly contended that the objective of the private sector is to maximize profits at all costs, including the detriment of educational quality, and it cannot therefore be trusted to look out for the best interests of students. Yet others, admittedly a minority, hold a more optimistic view of the profit motive in education as a means to improve educational outcomes. For persons residing in the latter camp, the profit motive drives competition and innovation that leads to efficient production and quality enhancements in the private sector, and they believe that the same market forces can be harnessed to improve the orlistat or alli efficiency and quality of education provision.
The Profit Motive in Education provides a unique glimpse into the potentially transformative power of private sector involvement in education, providing the reader with persuasive evidence supporting the claim that the profit motive can be harnessed to meet the needs of future generations that are not currently being met by the static education models of the past. Perhaps it is not from the benevolence of politicians, school administrators and teachers unions that we ought to expect our children to become better educated, but from the self-interest of entrepreneurs in a competitive education market.
This post originally appeared in CCAP’s “Higher Education and the Economy” blogspace for Forbes.com.
The Wall Street Journal recently highlighted the apparently growing underemployment amongst college graduates in China. As the story put it:
slowing growth underscores a fundamental challenge to China’s economic development: the underemployment of huge numbers of graduates that Chinese colleges are churning out.
Experts say that many of the graduates lack skills such as critical thinking, foreign languages and basic office communications that businesses are looking for. Even small private enterprises that offer humble salaries find many graduates unsatisfactory…
At the same time, China has made only limited gains in remaking its economy so it relies more on services and innovation and less on construction and assembly-line manufacturing. That limits the markets for the lawyers, engineers and accountants that Chinese universities are producing.
However, as the story notes at the very end, this may be only a problem for China in the short-term as companies seeking educated workers for service jobs may turn to China. It’s possible but that still doesn’t mean that the present will be a bit unpleasant for some, particularly for those graduates highlighted in this story from last year.
There are two persons of radically different political perspectives whose single-minded devotion to gathering and disseminating data on higher education set them apart from the rest of us: Tom Mortenson of Post Secondary Higher Education Opportunity, and Harry Stilles, of the Higher Education Research/Policy Center. Tom is a self-described “Minnesota socialist” dedicated to improving higher-education access, while Harry is a decidedly more conservative retired professor and legislator from South Carolina dedicated to increasing efficiency and improving quality. Higher education benefits from having both of them gather and publish data.
Today, I want to talk about some recent data published by Harry. Harry has come up with a way of measuring by state the degree of admissions selectivity. He looks at the percentage of students ranking in the top 10 percent of their high-school class, plus the SAT composite score for those at the 25th percentile in the distribution of such scores. He sums data across the many state colleges and universities in each state to get statewide average figures.
According to Harry’s reckoning, the most selective (highest admissions standard) states in the nation are Florida, Virginia, Delaware, Washington, Maryland, New Jersey, South Carolina, Iowa, Michigan, and Georgia. The least selective (lowest admissions standard) states are Alaska, Maine, West Virginia, Idaho, New Mexico, Utah, Rhode Island, North Dakota, Arkansas, and South Dakota.
Do differential admissions standards make a big difference in college academic performance? The answer, unequivocally, is “yes.” The 10 highest admission standards states listed above had an unweighted average sophomore-retention rate of 82.9 percent, meaning about 17 percent of entering freshmen did not go on to the sophomore year. Amongst the lowest admission standards state, the retention rate was only 71.5 percent, meaning 28.5 percent of entering freshmen never made it into the sophomore year—two-thirds greater a proportion.
The data hold if one looks at four-year graduation rates. For the high-admissions states, the mean is 37.3 percent, nearly double the 19.2 percent for the low-admissions states. Do the low-admissions states narrow the gap by students going five or six years to school? No. The six-year graduation rate for the high-admissions states averages 62.3 percent, compared with 43.1 percent for the low-admissions states. In short, most kids in the high-admissions states do graduate, while a majority in the low-admissions state do not, at least within six years.
In short, one can predict with some certainty what the impact of lowering standards in the name of greater educational access will be in terms of student prospects for tests. High-school rank and SAT test results are good predictors of success. States that say “we want to give everyone a chance for a bachelor’s degrees so we are going to admit nearly everyone who applies” might feel good about themselves—but they have far greater numbers of poor college students who then drop out of school without a diploma, but in many cases with college-loan debts and no degree allowing them access to good-paying jobs.
Harry estimates the costs to the taxpayers of dropouts and it is considerable—about $12-billion annually nationally by his calculation. Thus admitting students with little realistic prospect for success is pretty costly to taxpayers, as AT THE MARGIN the proportion of the less-good students admitted who graduate is doubtlessly quite small.
The moral of the story is that there are no free lunches. Lofty aspirations, like “everyone should have a chance at college,” come at a cost, not only to taxpayers and to society, but also to individuals who sometimes directly suffer significantly from the unintended consequences of some well-intended policy discussions.
Charles Murray is dubious about “everyone going to college” on intellectual capacity grounds. Jackson Toby is dubious about open admissions in terms of its impact on academic quality and declining high-school standards. I have been dubious on the grounds of labor market imbalances and high costs. Harry Stille’s data provide further support for those whose raise a caution light if not a stop sign with regards to the “College for Everyone” movement.
This post originally appeared on the “Innovations” blog of The Chronicle of Higher Education on August 7, 2012.