10 Plagues of Higher Education

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Higher education is a world of opportunity, a rich and verdant landscape budding with promise. But one wrong turn, and you can find yourself in a vast and perilous desert, teeming with predators (diploma mills), mirages (grade inflation), and quicksand (student loan debt).

We’re not try to scare you. We’re just trying to set up a rock-solid analogy.

Spring brings with it the holiday of Passover, on which people of the Jewish faith celebrate the new season by eating Matzah, gathering for a feast called the Seder, and retelling the story in which Moses led the Israelites from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land.

Well, freedom is great, but in the case of the Israelites, it also led to 40 years of wandering in the desert.

You see where I’m going with this, right?

Now that you’re heading to college, you also have a ton of freedom. You’ve been released from the bondage of high school and into a world of choices. Make those choices wisely or it’s the desert for you.

See, wasn’t that analogy worth sticking with?

Not only that, but it sets us up perfectly for the following 10-point list. As Moses pleaded with Egypt’s pharaoh for the freedom of his people, we are told that God visited ten plagues upon the Egyptians. These plagues are recited each year at the Passover Seder.

Like the Egyptian empire, the realm of higher education is beset by its own plagues. We don’t think they’re divine in nature. They’re quite manmade, in fact. But these are the pitfalls you’ll need to avoid so you can enjoy your freedom without any desert-wandering.

With that, we present the 10 Plagues of Higher Education, and a few resources on how to avoid them.

1. Diploma mills

Diploma mills are the counterfeiters of the college sector. They’re like the higher education equivalent of guys that hang on New York street corners selling "Goochy" wallets and "Barry" Vuitton handbags. The online college sector is crawling with these schemers, institutions posing as colleges but boasting no accreditation, maintaining no entrance requirements, and requiring little or no work in exchange for your diploma. Unfortunately, that diploma isn’t worth the web page you had to visit to print it. Essentially, for minimal effort and a bunch of money, a diploma mill will stamp your name on a meaningless diploma employers won’t take seriously.

Check out our handy guide to learn how to distinguish diploma mills from legitimate online colleges.

2. Cheating

Since the day human beings crawled out of the ooze and started walking erect, kids have been swiping test answers from each other. That’s nothing new. But teachers in one-room schoolhouses didn’t have to worry their students were purchasing custom-written homework from online essay mills and passing them off as their own work. Teachers today do have to worry about this, and much more. As the technology surrounding education has surged, so too has the ease with which students get away with academic dishonesty. While no college or university is insulated from plagiarism or academic dishonesty, the best colleges, universities, and degree programs tend to engage students on a more personal and intimate level. This engagement may be the most powerful deterrent against cheating — that and the healthy fear of knowing your teacher is actually paying attention.

Read on to learn more about the economics of online cheating.

3. Grade Inflation

One of the invisible challenges plaguing colleges and universities is grade inflation. There is evidence that average grades have been gradually nudged upward to improve the schoolwide appearance of academic performance. According to a 2012 study reported on in the Washington Post, while the average college GPA back in the 1930s was a “C+,” today that average is a “B” at public universities and a “B+” at private schools. And evidence reveals the problem is even worse among the most elite schools. A report from Yale found that 62% of all grades at the vaunted institution are either an “A” or “A-.” Harvard’s median grade, according to a 2013 article from the Harvard Crimson, was “A-.” The same article found that the most common grade at the school was an “A.”

I know what you’re thinking. Getting “A’s” at Harvard would be a great problem to have. But the truth is that this grade inflation is damaging the credibility of college degrees and undermining the usefulness of true and effective evaluation. Ironically, the problem is less severe in accredited online and community colleges, where the level of competition is less contingent upon indicators like school-wide GPA.

In light of trends like grade inflation, we weigh the pros and cons of dismantling the grading system and replacing it with something that works. If you’re not ready to make that leap, see the 50 Best Online Colleges & Universities 2019. Many of these schools excel because they provide meaningful and sometimes innovative metrics for student evaluation.

4. Skyrocketing Tuition

If you want a reason to resent your parents, here’s a great one. Back when they went to college, the whole thing cost a fraction of what your meal plan will cost at a private university this year. In the 1971–72 school year, the average tuition for a year at a private, nonprofit four-year school was $1,832, adjusting for inflation. That same school year, a four-year, public school would have cost you $500.

That’s what your phone costs now.

Let me know when you’re done shaking your fist in anger.

OK, cool. So today, the average four-year, public school charges $9,139 in tuition and fees. The cost is $31,231 for a private, four-year school. You may once again commence fist-shaking.

Or … you can check out our Affordable College Source, which offers a number of solutions for getting the best possible value without mortgaging your future on an insanely expensive education.

5. Student Debt

College can be crazy expensive. So what? As long as we have student loans, all good, right?

Well, not so much.

Here at The Quad, we’re constantly kvetching about the scourge of student loan debt. We write about it all the time. And yet, this debt is growing so fast that our numbers become outdated almost overnight. As of February 2017, the total amount of student loan debt owned by Americans was $1.3 trillion dollars, shared among 44 million borrowers. The average graduate in 2016 owed more than $37,000 in student loan debt, a 6% rise from just the previous year!

This debt can be a serious financial burden for recent graduates, the kind that easily overshadows the value of your degree or entry-level income. While student loans are a big part of the application process, remember that this is a sum you must repay one day. That day comes faster than you think, so look for the best schools for your money. There are all kinds of reputable, enriching, and affordable options for a great higher education.

Check out our Affordable Colleges Source and find ways to get through school without carrying a mountain of debt behind you.

6. Low Completion Rates

Good reasons to go to college include educational enrichment, personal growth, and traditions that involve streaking. But let’s be honest. If you don’t plan to take home a degree at the conclusion, there are far more affordable ways to learn stuff and run around naked in public. (Don’t quote us on that second part. Consult your town’s ordinances before you drop trow while borrowing free books from your local library.)

Anyway, completion rates among US college students are startlingly low. In December 2017, the six-year completion rate for students who had enrolled in fall 2011 was at 56.9%. And that’s after a two-year climb in the rate of completion. Just over half of students complete their four-year education in under six years. I guess we might need to stop calling them four-year schools.

This poor rate of completion should not deter you. Instead, let it remind you of how important it is to find a school properly suited to your needs, interests, and aptitudes. Matching your career ambitions with the proper academic setting can be a difference-maker when it comes to completing college and earning your degree. Start with a look at some of the most popular degree programs and discover where each one can lead!

7. Cybersecurity

In its 2017 Internet Security Threat Report, web security leader Symantec ranks education among the sectors most vulnerable to cyberattack. Why? Because the nation’s college students represent one of the largest stores of consumer data in the world. That’s right. Turns out all that information we’ve been giving away for free on Instagram and Snapchat is like target marketing gold to retailers.

It’s also a juicy prize for hackers and credit card scammers, a body of data that includes every piece information you submitted through your FAFSA, your college application, your high school transcripts, and your medical records. We’re not trying to frighten you, but this is an emergent reality, one in which each of us is increasingly at risk of privacy breach, identity theft, and credit theft.

While every college and university will differ in security policies and procedures, you might consider an institution with a reputable computer science program. Check the 100 Best Computer Science Programs in the World for tech-savvy schools, and perhaps even learn how to lead in the fight against cybercrime.

8. Administrative Bloat

Despite what it sounds like, administrative bloat isn’t a condition your university president gets from being forced to eat fiber-stuffed dining hall food. (Cue sheepish rimshot.) According to an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, administrative bloat is the costly, ongoing expansion of bureaucracy in higher education.

An array of factors have conspired to swell the administrative ranks of public and private colleges alike. Notable among these factors are the need for greater student support, an increased pressure to focus on recruitment and retention, the ever-growing demand for fundraising, and the expansion of flashy campus amenities such as climbing walls, semi-futuristic-looking student centers, and luxury dorms with uniformed doormen and stainless steel kitchen appliances.

Look no further if you want to know at least one of the reasons that college is so expensive. There is, what Professor Robert E. Martin of Centre College in Kentucky calls “an arms race” among colleges, who are in fierce competition to appeal to prospective students. These fancy frills are designed to court you as a customer. Whether or not they’ll enrich your education is very much up for debate.

And that’s totally cool, if you can afford it. But for those who want the education without all the costly add-ons, online college can be a terrific alternative. Online colleges often have far fewer administrative needs than their on-campus counterparts. In many cases, this administrative leanness results in lower student fees and tuition.

Check out the Best Online Colleges and get around the bloat!

9. Stagnant Pay

If you’re attending a bigger college or university, you should care whether or not the adjunct professors and teaching assistants at your school subsist on a toll collector’s salary. These grad students, aspiring educators, and — in some cases — fully-qualified educational professionals can have a direct impact on your education … and your grades. In many cases, somebody other than a full-time, tenured professor may preside over recitations, grade assignments, and proctor exams. You want these individuals to be engaged, invested, and motivated. Stagnant and sometimes downright insulting pay can lead to low morale, burnout, and the diminished capacity to actually give a rat’s rump about you, your grades, or your academic enrichment. Low pay also prevent some of the best and brightest from entering into the field of higher education.

In other words, lower pay for your teaching assistants, adjuncts, and associate professors may translate into diminished quality in your academic experience. The 50 Best Online Colleges & Universities 2019 on our list benefit from academic personnel that are engaged, motivated, and qualified.

10. Shady For-Profit Schools

While the online college sector is rife with exciting opportunities and innovative learning models, it’s also festering with shady for-profit colleges that employ under-qualified educators, provide low-quality instruction, and award mediocre degrees. Shady for-profits can be a little trickier to spot than degree mills because they do provide some curriculum and testing. It’s usually just not very good. For a textbook example, check out the history of a school called Trump University.

Though the shady for-profits have come under scrutiny for aggressive recruitment tactics and deceptive marketing practices in recent years, the current presidential administration has vowed to remove regulations aimed at reducing fraud and corruption by for-profit schools. This could open the door for a new era of expansion and unchecked recruitment.

This means that it has never been more important for you, as the consumer, to look for meaningful accreditation. Learn more about accreditation here, or avoid the degree mills and shady for-profits by jumping right to our list of the 50 Best Online Colleges & Universities 2019.

As you can see, higher education is indeed beset by plagues. But they don’t need to shape your experience. Ultimately, the story of Passover is one of triumph, of emerging to freedom and making the most of it.

Take our advice and you’ll be well on your way to the Promised Land.

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