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Everyone should go to college, we're frequently told. But what if we had a college, and nobody came? And still got credit anyway.
The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill might not have gotten quite to that point, but it has come close: More than 50 classes offered by the African Studies department, and very popular with athletes, appear not to have actually existed. Some of these courses listed instructors who had not "supervised the course and graded the work," and others "were taught irregularly," a university review said.
UNC's chancellor and football coach lost their jobs. The African Studies department chair, professor Julius Nyang'oro, is under indictment for fraud. That's bad enough. But it gets worse.
Now we're hearing that many UNC athletes basically can't read or write. No one, of course, expects a person who excels at a sport to necessarily excel at academics any more than we expect Nobel Prize winners to possess a great jump shot. But "students" who are functionally illiterate strike at the very point of college -- to educate.
Observing this phenomenon, Kevin Carey, director of the Education Policy Program at the New America Foundation, writes:
"UNC-Chapel Hill is not a coherent undergraduate institution. It's a holding company that provides shared marketing, finance and physical plant services for a group of autonomous departments, which are in turn holding companies for autonomous scholars who teach as they please. This is the only possible explanation for the years-long, wholly undetected operation of the African and Afro-American Studies department credit fraud scam. Or, rather, it's the only possible explanation other than a huge, organization-wide conspiracy in which the university administration, department, and football team colluded to hand out fake grades to hundreds of athletes."
Either one of these possibilities is troubling, and not just for the University of North Carolina. When parents pay a lot -- or, increasingly, when students borrow a lot -- for a college degree, the presumption is that the degree means something. When hundreds of fake courses can be taught to often functionally illiterate students without anyone noticing, it suggests there's not much in the way of quality control.
It's possible that this problem is limited to the University of North Carolina, but it's more likely that the university isn't all that unusual.
After the Chapel Hill scandals broke, CNN conducted an investigation of athletic programs, finding that at public universities, many football and basketball players are reading at the eighth-grade level, making it doubtful that they're passing college classes.
In a way that's a relief. If the substandard education offered to athletes is the only substandard education that big universities are providing, the problem is still serious but at least somewhat limited. Even so, it's also quite possible that many classes, taught at many schools, are only a cut or two above the no-show classes that Nyang'oro allegedly offered.
Students not learning
In fact, research shows that many college students, not just athletes, don't learn much. A recent book, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, found that 36% of college students "did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning" over a full four years in college. The reason? Arum and Roksa found that most students study only about 12-14 hours a week, mostly in groups. Half of students don't take a course in which they have to write more than 20 pages over a semester.
Unsurprisingly, employers don't trust a college degree as much as they used to. We're already seeing a push to improve higher education by using outside certification: Folks from ETS, ACT and the Council for Aid to Education can play a useful role, much as the bar exam does for students who graduate law school. If employers find these competency tests reliable enough, they could rely on them instead of college degrees, which would be a major blow to colleges. (On top of that, legislation now before Congress would direct federal funding to alternative higher education approaches, which could add to the pressure.)
At any rate, with college costs skyrocketing, and job prospects for graduates remaining determinedly earthbound, scandals like UNC's are likely to cause many to think twice about the higher education system. Is UNC's scandal a worst-case scenario, or an indicator of a more general rot beneath the surface?
I'm afraid I can guess the answer.
Glenn Harlan Reynolds is professor of law at the University of Tennessee and the author of The New School: How the Information Age Will Save American Education from Itself. He blogs at InstaPundit.com.