The College Diploma Fraud

For more than a half-century, government has tried to close racial gaps in educational attainment.  Sad to say, those gaps have proven intractable.  Nevertheless, the impulse remains as heartfelt as ever (perhaps due to its financially lucrative character), but the emphasis is now shifting from actual learning to equality of graduation rates.  President Obama has spoken of adding 5 million graduates to the workforce by 2020, and credential-mania is now all the rage.  This shift is a disaster in the making; imparting knowledge is commendable, but just handing out diplomas is harmful deception.  A cynic might aver that the shift from knowledge to graduation rates is a tacit admission that the gap-closing quest is futile.

Consider a recent Washington Post story, "Md's Towson University conquers 'graduation gap.'"  The story explains how Towson is now among the tiny few that have equalized graduation across blacks, whites, and Hispanics.  The article's tone was clearly celebratory.  Meanwhile, a report prepared by The Education Trust (cited in the Post story) that examines the topic more broadly insisted that equal graduation rates "would be a very big step in putting our country on a path to a better and more equitable future." 

The tip-off to this educational chicanery is the silence regarding actual learning, as if the physical piece of paper signified educational competency.  There is nothing about what these graduates majored in, their class rank and future academic success in graduate schools, professional certification exams scores, or future employment.  Having the piece of paper is, apparently, the great accomplishment.

University outsiders seldom grasp the ease of manipulating graduation statistics when deception is officially tolerated.  Critically, this sham is almost invisible to outsiders.  I cannot for sure say how Towson University achieved these happy numbers, but in nearly four decades of university teaching, I have personally witnessed multiple ruses, and my colleagues often confirmed my observations.  So let me offer what might be called "A Guide to Schools Desperate to Increase Minority Graduation Rates."

First, offer special, unadvertised "minority only" courses.  Thanks to today's charitable standard grading curve, nearly all enrollees will now receive As and Bs to eradicate Ds and Fs elsewhere.  This just extends the "athletes only" courses popular to sustain student-athlete eligibility.  At the University of Illinois-Urbana, where I taught for 28 years, such "minority only" courses paralleled multiple introductory courses in varied fields and superficially appeared to be bona fide courses.  Though designed to award gift grades, they still counted in accumulated graduation credit.  In a pinch, universities are free to award full academic credit to de facto remedial courses targeting unprepared minority students. 

Second, supply generous official rescues to wipe-out failures, and even absolve students of blatant cheating (often rampant thanks to the internet) in interventions totally invisible to those who suspect bogus statistics.  Some schools now even allow failing grades to be expunged after the final exam.  I recall one struggling student who submitted a paper purchased on the internet who accidentally included the $25 receipt from ""  Though the drop deadline had long passed, he was excused from the class with no penalty thanks to the intercession of the department's official advisor.  I know of another school where written permission from the school's president was required before a black student could be failed.  In a sense, many minority students are often treated as if they were members of an endangered species.

Third, accept no-questions-asked transfer credit regardless of the source.  Again, this is a carryover from keeping athletes eligible and is nearly impossible to detect without scrutinizing specific course syllabi to certify equivalence.  Moreover, each institution decides the number of transfer credits permitted to count toward the degree.  At the University of Illinois when I taught there, one quarter of one's accumulated credits could come from outside, be they from Harvard or the local admission-hungry community college. 

Fourth, steer academically troubled students to certain courses, especially those taught by ideologically sympathetic instructors who virtually guarantee top grades, or at least courses where nobody fails.  Such offerings are certainly known to counselors, but even ordinary courses now have inflated grades, so failure requires gross incompetence (for grade inflation in general, see here).  Or, if a hard-nosed grader teaches a required course, either pressure him or her to relax the curve or just put a more generous grader in charge.  Ironically, relying on student evaluation to promote "good teaching" encourages easy grading and, as a side benefit, helps boost minority graduation rates.

Fifth, develop entire majors or at least individual courses whose tacit justification is to supply easy grades to struggling minority students.  These constitute the familiar grievance-flavored group identity curriculum -- Black Studies, African-American Studies, Chicano Studies, and the like (for Towson's identity politics courses, see here).  Here one's own identity is the unchallenged academic resource, and what instructor is brave enough to invalidate that firsthand knowledge?  Now add majors and courses designed for college athletes -- courses in sports management, recreation, and even leisure studies -- and the Mickey Mouse menu is an all-you-can-eat buffet of soft academic irrelevance.

Finally, surround minority students with a coterie of role models, mentors, and counselors to guide them through their rocky path toward the diploma.  Further add individual tutors, centers to help with paper-writing, and more general classes on how to succeed in college.  Towson offers a welcome-to-college class that teaches such things as decision-making skills (see here).  While at Illinois, I witnessed a steady parade of pre-college "bridge" programs, some of which paid prospective students to acquire essential college skills.        

With all of these tools available, it is no wonder that some energetic schools have successfully improved black graduation rates.  But whether these concocted diplomas mean much is another story.  My own sense is that these graduates have been hoodwinked by self-serving college officials.  That today's college degrees, regardless of the recipient's race, are increasingly "manufactured" versus reflecting real learning is strongly suggested by a recent Bureau of Labor Statistics report.  Specifically, contemporary "college graduates" are increasingly employed in positions once occupied by high school graduates.  For example, in 1992, 17.6% of all college graduates were in positions classified as "noncollege level jobs."  By 2008, this percentage had doubled to 35.2%.  In 1992, some 119,000 waiters and waitresses had college degrees; by 2008, this number had soared to 318,000.  No doubt, unprepared black students who owe their diplomas to intense institutional effort and deception have fared even worse in today's difficult job market.  In a sense, America's long quest for both educational equality and excellence is being satisfied by a combination of gullibility, linguistic trickery, and craven opportunism

Ill-prepared black students are the real losers in this deception, and one can only speculate why their liberal "friends" tolerate the dishonesty.  Many would have been better-advised to enroll in a trade school and acquire a well-paid, marketable skill.  In the long run, if a college degree is the aim, a "tough love" strategy of requiring passing arduous courses with modest outside help would be more beneficial.  Surely President Obama has encountered these subterfuges in his academic career and must realize that calling for more and more diplomas will only increase the supply of college-educated waiters.

Some exceptions aside, granting ever more college diplomas only signifies the power of today's universities to counterfeit genuine accomplishment.  Particularly worrisome is that many of these graduates have been trained for dependency.  Picture these graduates navigating a cruel world deprived of role models, mentors, counselors, sympathetic evaluators, resource centers, pre-job bridge programs, and bosses unwilling to substitute ego-enhancing identity politics for difficult work.

Let us be clear.  It is uncertain just what these Towson graduates actually learned, though we suspect that if the accomplishment were real, these upbeat reports would have celebrated it.  They may even succeed in demanding jobs.  Far more likely, however, is that this celebration masks a politically driven charade to demonstrate progress to those who happily accept outward appearances over substance.

Robert Weissberg is Professor of Political Science-Emeritus, University of Illinois-Urbana. His latest book is Bad Students Not Bad