Are We Cheating Ourselves?
By Andy Gold
Often, it is said that college students live in a bubble, and that is the way it is supposed to be. However, we know that what defines a traditional college experience varies greatly from student to student. Many students leave home, and travel to remote campus communities and immerse themselves in, what parents hope will be a four-year journey of academic and social exploration. Other students are parents themselves, and working two or more jobs while attending college. As an adjunct business professor at four New York metro area colleges, I have had the benefit of working with an extremely diverse group of students. I believe that this experience has made me a better person, and instructor.
While doing some research, I recently came across two articles that caught my attention. The first one, entitled “The Default Major: Skating Through B-School”, appeared in the New York Times in April of this year, and the other from the Los Angeles Times, “College, too easy for its own good” was published in June (Glenn, 2011; Arum & Roksa, 2011). Both articles bring to light, and address several disconcerting developments within the domain of higher education.
There is an abundant array of research, published over the past decade, which provides support for the claims made in these recent articles, as well as additional reasons for educators and students to be concerned. Glenn (2011) points out several potential contributory sources that he suggests have made business school easier. First is the notion that students decide to major in business by default, rather than because of some intellectual curiosity. Much of this process begins in high school. I know first-hand, that in the case of my children (now both attending college), that it was often asked of them during their last two years of high school what they wanted to study in college. The college application process and post-secondary institutions at-large reinforce this dynamic, by segmenting their organizations into specific sub-colleges within the university structure. High school students applying to such institutions are commonly asked what academic major the student intends to pursue.
This inevitably leads high school students making relative comparisons to one another. The concept of relativism, grounded in the fact that we as individuals are not happy with what we have, but rather what we have as compared to those around us. As a result, students who are not fully aware about what majoring in business entails become more focused on business school rankings, rather than what the curriculum is about. This way, the high school student can make a relative comparison of the school they are attending, and sadly, this misguided process ultimately drives the college decision-making process for many students and parents.
This is not to say, that some students in high school know for sure what they want to study and as a result, attending the appropriate university or college is an important consideration. Evidence however supports the point that most students do not know what they want to study when entering college. The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), have conducted research in this area and concluded that approximately 70 percent of college students will change their major at least once.
A second interesting conclusion from this article is the belief that students, rather than focusing on learning, are becoming increasingly “bottom line focused” on grades. The notion of students becoming progressively disengaged in learning, and instead are doing whatever is required to achieve high grade-point averages, while an alarming accusation, is in many ways understandable. As the cost of education has risen excessively in recent decades, and pressure has mounted to select academic majors that can provide higher income opportunities, students have, in many cases opted to major in business, if for no other reason than the expectation that their income opportunity will be greater.
The recent college-aged population bubble, a byproduct of the Baby Boomers, whose children began entering college in recent decades, created increased demand for college and as a result, contributed in part to tuition increases. This dynamic would be tolerable if wage increases were equal to or greater than the inflation rate of college tuition. However, this is not the case and in many circumstances, this population bubble is contributing directly to this negative effect. The abundance of college graduates have started to flood the labor market at a time when the global economy is weak, unemployment is high, and foreign students with college degrees are willing to accept jobs at a lower wage. Nearly half of all recent college graduates are either frictionally unemployed, or working in jobs that do not require a college degree.
The unemployment rate for recent college graduates is the highest in 35 years, with estimates ranging from 12-18 percent.
What you end up with is increased financial obligations required to obtain a degree, at a time of downward pressure on labor rates. Is this trend sustainable, or are we about to see the bubble burst? Several factors have started to form the groundwork for the demand for education to shift to the left (indicating a reduction in demand). First, is the simple fact that with tuition costs so high, and with little signs of this trend abating, fewer students will be able to afford to attend college. Second, as the debate over federal, state and local budgets rages on, education is clearly one target that many have eyed for further cuts. Third, as the default rates on student loans continues to rise, and tax payers are on the hook for these loans, there will be political pressure to reduce the amount of lending and to increase the requirements of students looking to obtain loans.
An equally alarming trend within the field of education directly related to the issues discussed already is a movement toward rapidly increasing academic dishonesty, particularly among students majoring in business. This dynamic should be of great concern, as most data suggests that individuals, who behave unethically in the context of their educational experiences, carry this behavior with them into the workplace environment. Mccabe (2008) concluded that students engaged in the study of business cheat at a significantly higher rate than do students studying other disciplines. Many have hypothesized what the causes for this trend may be. Some suggest its derivation comes from the advent of technology and the ease by which students can plagiarize. Others suggest that relativism plays a significant role. The non-cheating student observes the cheating student being rewarded with higher grades, and not being punished. As a result, the non-cheater begins to feel that they are at a competitive disadvantage to the cheater and therefore must engage in academic dishonesty in order to keep up.
Arum and Roksa address a different aspect of this problem. In their article which questions whether or not college is getting too easy for students, the authors introduce the specter that not only has college costs reached an excess, but the skills the students are acquiring by attending college are lacking, due in part to an overall lapse in academic standards and requirements. This combination of weaker skills and standards may also be contributing to the increasing trend of academic dishonesty. Students looking for shortcuts and feeling pressure to retain high grade-point averages will be more likely to bend rules. Furthermore, as technology has become more abundant, it has made time scarcer. Many students spend more time on social networking, then studying. A study performed at Ohio State University showed that active Facebook users had lower GPA’s than non-active Facebook users. One of the more interesting findings from this study indicates that the active Facebook users do not believe that spending time on social networking as opposed to schoolwork has any effect on grades. It is as though an entire generation of students is in a state of denial (Duberstein, A., Karpinski, A., 2010).
With this generation of students experiencing a real-time sense of connectivity with technology, new issues related to cheating have surfaced. Students are becoming increasingly distracted and unable to focus on a single task as they try to manage the digital flow of information constantly influencing them. As suggested in the Ohio State study referenced above, many students believe that they are capable of multi-tasking. Is it possible to listen to a professor lecture, and absorb the material being taught, while at the same time, Googling information about a celebrity, responding to a Facebook wall postings, reading tweets, and texting friends? Perhaps it is, but the evidence suggests otherwise. In response to this new culture of students, educators have, in many ways been forced to become entertainers of sorts, providing more simulative teaching methods to compete with the distracted mindset of many of today’s students. Some teachers have adopted the philosophy of; if you cannot beat them, join them. This pool of instructors has attempted to integrate social media into course curriculum, and in so doing feel that they are better able to reach their students. Others have taken the approach that topics can only be covered on a surface level, because too much detail is beyond the scope and attention capabilities of many young people. Ask most college students to read a twelve-page article from some business journal and the task for many seems insurmountable. Last semester, I gave my students an article to read that happened to be written by one of my favorite authors, Malcolm Gladwell. The article entitled “The Talent Myth”, is in my opinion required reading for any business student (Gladwell, 2002). Some read it, others complained about its length. I found that when we discussed the article in class, even those who had not read it, were engaged in the content provided by Gladwell. Arum and Roksa state that:
In a typical semester, 50% of students did not take a single course requiring more than 20 pages of writing, 32% did not have any classes that required reading more than 40 pages per week, and 36% reported studying alone five or fewer hours per week. Not surprisingly, given such a widespread lack of academic rigor, about a third of students failed to demonstrate significant gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing ability (as measured by the Collegiate Learning Assessment) during their four years of college.
As an educator who prides himself on the depth and quality of instruction that I provide to my students, I was bothered by the notion that perhaps I was not doing enough, or even worse, doing things incorrectly. I found myself quickly rationalizing why I was the exception to the rule, or why their findings were incorrect. I began to think that one could interpret their conclusions differently, and paint an alternate picture all together by simply rephrasing a few words. By stating proudly that at least half the students surveyed take a course that requires 20 or more pages of writing, nearly 70% have taken classes that require reading more than 40 pages per week, and seven out of ten college students surveyed spend their time studying more than five hours per week. When I thought of things in this light, it suggested that many students are challenging themselves, and I felt better.
The truth, I believe is somewhere in between. Arum and Roksa (2011) are correct that many students do not apply themselves as much as they are capable, however the evidence they present is compelling to the point that one must recognize that a major shift within higher education has taken place. They are equally correct in their explanation that some institutions addicted to the higher tuition rates may have a tendency to be more accepting of mediocrity for fear of losing the tuition dollars. In many ways, what the articles presented here suggest, is that many colleges and universities are more concerned with who they can attract to attend their school, as opposed to who is actually attending. As Arum and Roksa (2011) point out, higher education has pivoted in recent decades away from a student-centered learning obsession toward one that instead focuses much energy and resources on “things like admission yields, graduation rates, faculty research productivity, pharmaceutical patents, deluxe dormitory rooms, elaborate student centers and state-of-the-art athletic facilities complete with luxury boxes”.
All of these forces converging simultaneously will be most problematic on one particular front, if left unchecked. The income gap, at its widest point since the late 1920’s is largely a function of a failure to make an effective and firm long-term commitment to education. The stark difference in resources available to students who need them the most is alarming. Conceptually, most people understand that poorer neighborhoods have worse schools than wealthy areas. Many people share this understanding, and desire to have that societal imbalance corrected. However, when asked to pay for its repair, a different response is triggered. When one compares academic resources available to students in lower socio-economic areas with those in wealthier districts, it is easy to see how high a barrier many lower socio-economic individuals face when trying to better themselves. Add on top of that the fact that PELL grants have not only failed to keep up with the rate of inflation, but have fallen dramatically short of the rate of tuition increases.
The scale and scope of this issue is vast. It is almost too overwhelming to try to figure out. In the recent budget deal struck last spring, an additional $1 billion was taken out of the Department of Education’s budget. Is it wrong to advocate for greater equity in the educational system? I am so proud and ispired of all of my students, and in particular, those students who struggle each day to overcome the economic barriers that have presented themselves. As long as they can make the effort, I can do the same and advocate on their behalf. Maybe, if enough of us speak-out on this issue, perhaps we can make a small difference…. “one voice can change a room, one room can change a city, one city can change a state, one state can change a nation”. Where did I hear that before?
Arum & Roksa, 2011. Retrived from: http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/commentary/la-oe-arum-college-20110602,0,1981136.story
Duberstein, A., Karpinski, A., 2010. Retrieved from: http://researchnews.osu.edu/archive/facebook2009.jpg
Gladwell, M., 2002. Retreived from: http://www.gladwell.com/2002/2002_07_22_a_talent.htm
Glenn, 2011. Retrived from: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/17/education/edlife/edl-17business-t.html?ref=edlife&pagewanted=print
McCabe, D. L., & Bowers, W. J. (2009). The relationship between student cheating and college fraternity or sorority membership. NASPA Journal (National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, Inc.), 46(4), 573-586. Retrieved from http://www.naspa.org/
McCabe, D. L., Butterfield, K. D., & Trevino, L. K. (2006). Academic dishonesty in graduate business programs: Prevalence, causes, and proposed action. Academy of Management Learning & Education, 5(3), 294-305. doi:10.1207/S15327019EB1103_2
McCabe, D. L., & Trevino, L. K. (1997). Individual and contextual influences on academic dishonesty: A multi-campus investigation. Research in Higher Education, 38(3), 379-396. Retrieved from http://www.aabri.com/rhej.html
McCabe, D. L., & Trevino, L. (1993). Academic dishonesty: Honor codes and other contextual influences. Journal of Higher Education, 64(5), 522-538. doi:10.2307/2959991