Sunday, October 18, 2009

Academic Dishonesty in Higher Education

Walter Williams is my favorite syndicated columnist. I look forward to reading his column every Sunday in the Cincinnati Enquirer. One of his favorite targets is the sorry state of higher education in the United States. His most recent rant, titled, Academic Dishonesty, shines a bright light on grade inflation at elite colleges and universities and how those very expensive institutions manipulate statistics to maintain their high rankings. Rather than rehash my hero’s arguments I thought I’d add a few caveats. As a professor at a small private liberal arts college, I can offer a slightly different perspective.

Like it or not, students at small private colleges compete with the graduates of these “highly ranked” programs; for jobs and for admission into graduate programs. But how can we compete with those institutions when they give all of their students A’s and B’s? Realistically, can we give our students a lot of B’s and C’s? Moreover, if you are a junior faculty member that hopes to earn tenure at a small college that emphasizes “good teaching,” how can you earn stellar student evaluations if you give out mostly B’s and C’s? Or better yet, if you are a Program Chair or an Academic Dean responsible for granting promotion and tenure, would you promote “easy-grading” professors with high student evaluations or “hard-grading” professors with lower evaluations; especially, knowing that low GPAs will not get your best students into high-paying jobs or graduate school?

So although it is tempting to attribute to the decline of higher education in the United States to simple dishonesty, it is actually much more complicated. At least part of the problem can be attributed to publically funded universities that spend millions of dollars in tax money on attractive new buildings and expensive athletic programs. And of course, those institutions must then take in more students to help pay the bills. Without expensive remedial programs, many of these new students flunk out the first year. One inexpensive way to make up for feeble remedial programs (and poor secondary education) is to lower academic standards. In other words, grade inflation is an effective solution to sagging retention numbers.

In my view, the only way to fix this mess is to accept the fact that higher education is an industry. This requires a major shift in governmental policy away from subsiding inefficient state institutions (and driving small public institutions out of business) and toward a less intrusive role consisting in promoting fair competition between private institutions. Realistically, will that ever happen? Well Walter, what am I going to do? Am I going to start giving out a lot of C’s and D’s in order to rescue academic honesty in higher education. If you said no, go to the head of the class.

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