Trouble in Academia: Some Distinctions

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Not all abuses in higher education are alike. We may distinguish at least six different types of problems, none of which is unique to the online world.

(1) Diploma mills: These are schools that are unaccredited, have no entrance requirements, and require little or no work in order to receive a diploma. You basically spend a lot of money to buy a worthless piece of paper. However, one supposes that most "students" know what they are getting into when they sign up with one of these institutions, and in that sense they get what they pay for.

(2) Fraudulent credentials: This problem received a lot of publicity a few years back when the Dean of Admissions at MIT was discovered to have falsified her resume. She had not really earned either the masters or the doctorate degree that she claimed to have. This story had legs because it was deliciously ironic: in this case, it was a university itself that was being scammed by someone presenting false university credentials. However, this is a problem that can and does occur in any sector of society; it is not peculiar to higher education.

(3) Plagiarism: We may safely assume that cheating on tests is as old as tests themselves. What is new is the technology that now allows students to download passages or whole term papers from a multitude of websites at the click of a mouse. This practice has indeed attained something like epidemic proportions in recent years all across the country. But what is basically a technological problem has a technological solution, such as requiring students to submit their papers to an anti-plagiarism website, where they can be scanned, approved, and only then downloaded by the professor. This is probably not a problem that spells the end of civilization as we know it.

(4) Malfeasance: This is potentially a more serious problem for higher education. Of course, just as cheating is as old as tests, so too, we may be sure, is theft as old as property. Nevertheless, it is only fairly recently that stories like the following have begun to grab headlines:

At Texas Southern University, the CFO was sentenced to 10 years in the penitentiary for embezzlement; the President of the college got off lightly, with 10 years' probation.

In Alabama's two-year community college system, the Chancellor turned state's evidence and received a reduced sentence of only six and a half years in the slammer for bribery; altogether, 15 defendants were sentenced for bribery, kickback, theft, conspiracy, or cover-up charges.

Why such large-scale malfeasance in America's colleges and universities, of all places? The reason is clear: If Willie Sutton were alive today, and were asked, "Why do you rob colleges?", he would reply, "Because that's where the money is." This represents a structural change to our system of higher education, which is also closely linked to the following category.

(5) Academic welfare: This is a term that was recently coined (see, for example, here), on analogy with "corporate welfare," to refer to the practice by some accredited institutions of accepting students who do not meet minimum entrance requirements for the sake of the tax-supported dollars they bring with them. Another variant of the scheme is allowing failing students to remain on the rolls. For example, it was recently revealed that Chicago State University allowed many students with GPA's as low as 0.0 to remain in good standing. Such students, clearly, have very little prospect of graduating or securing employment that would enable them to repay their loans.

These are accredited colleges that in effect turn themselves into diploma mills, with the difference that they are even more likely to ensnare the unwary. This type of abuse on the part of some brick-and-mortar institutions is quite similar to the charges leveled against Education Management Corporation, discussed in yesterday's article. Which shows that the problem is a general one, and not restricted to online institutions, though it may be that the fraudulent institutions represent a larger fraction of the total in the online sector. This is clearly unconscionable behavior that must be put a stop to, by legislative action, if necessary.

(6) Grade inflation: This term, which is now in quite general use, refers to the lowering of academic standards that has occurred over the past several decades. There is no doubt that it is real. All of us who have worked in Academia over a period of many years know it to be a fact. Clearly it is a problem, because it undermines the value of grades and of diplomas. Above all, it is unfair to those diligent students who actually deserve the high marks they receive.

What can be done about it? Probably not a lot. It is a deep symptom of the loss of self-confidence of educators in their own mission. If one has no confidence in the spiritual value of higher education, but is committed to a philosophy of value relativism; if teaching TV shows like The Sopranos is believed to be equivalent to teaching Dostoyevsky or Dickens; then how can one confidently assign A's to some students and F's to others?

The other aspect of grade inflation is the commercialization of the Academy and the imposition of the doctrine that the customer is always right.  But perhaps that is just another symptom of the general loss of nerve in our civilization. It seems that the only thing we can all agree on when it comes to value is that money has it.

If that is right, then higher education had better be able to defend itself in terms of dollars and cents. But is higher education conceived of strictly as a business still worthy of the name?

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