Monday, January 28, 2013

Is EVERYBODY Cheating?

In the realm of higher education, law schools have been taking a beating for a while for falsifying various kinds of data - in particular, data about how many of their graduates find jobs. The Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego, Villanova, and others have faced sanctions over their efforts to make themselves and their product look better in the face of a pretty grim labor market for lawyers. Given the substantial stock of lawyer/ethics jokes already in circulation, not too many outside the legal profession saw this as all that surprising.

Now it turns out that the law schools aren't alone. Tulane University's Business School has been sanctioned for submitting false data to US News - drawing on an equally-large pool of jokes about "business ethics" being an oxymoron. But it turns out that this goes beyond Law and B-schools: George Washington University and Bucknell, both considered elite universities, have apparently been falsifying their admissions data to the public for some years.

At some point you have to start asking why there seem to be trees cropping up here and there and start asking about the forest. How widespread is this problem? We don't know, but the fact that more and more schools keep getting outed suggests that higher education has a cheating problem on its hands.

For years, of course, various folks have decried the arbitrary nature of rankings like the US News reports, the Princeton ratings, Barron's, etc. That hasn't kept them from being extremely popular with parents and prospective students, who are overwhelmed with data and looking for some way to simplify the process. If it turns out that the data going into those rankings is bogus, that may finally be their undoing - or, at least, their weakening.

I've been in higher education for over 15 years now as a professional (over 20 if you count being a student). I've worked with administrators who I very much doubt would engage in these kinds of shenanigans, as well as some who I suspect would do it in a heartbeat. It's very hard to tell from the outside, of course - they all smile and say the same things in public. But let's be clear - there are apparently quite a few cheaters in our midst.

What tends to put a stop to unacceptable behavior is the likelihood of getting caught, coupled with serious consequences for doing so. Lance Armstrong has become the poster child for a cycling world gone mad with doping - the New York Times put together a chart of the top 10 finishers in the Tour de France for the past 15 years, marking which ones had later been caught, which looks like an almost solid rectangular rogue's gallery. The sport is now struggling to figure out how to identify these folks fast enough, and punish them harshly enough, so the rest will stop. The Catholic Church has been wrestling with a pedophile problem for some years, and continues to do so, that poses similar problems.

But in higher education, there is no anti-doping agency, no watchdog groups of former victims pressing for justice. Among law schools, the American Bar Association has taken an interest, which should help there. But the organizations which could really help the broader industry - the regional accrediting bodies that provide the necessary sanction that every college and university needs - have neither the resources nor, apparently, the inclination to pursue the issue of data fraud.

None of this, of course, is to say that every school is in fact issuing fraudulent data. Public universities would have a harder time doing so, because everything they do is public record, so it's easier for folks to double-check. Most public universities are also overseen by state-level bodies which could bring much more immediate consequences for any infraction. And many institutions (my own included) don't have "climbing the rankings" as part of their strategic plans. For universities more interested in providing access than prestige, there's not as much incentive to lie about your numbers. But overall, we seem to be facing a broader problem, the full extent of which isn't known yet.

The same is true in cycling, in baseball, in the Catholic Church - any number of areas with a widespread "cheating problem" of one kind or another. We, the outside public, may know that not everyone is cheating. But we can't tell who is and who isn't. So we start to mistrust them all.

If you're the parent of a college-bound child (as I am) - forget the rankings. Because of the glut of PhDs over the last couple of decades, it is now possible for an enterprising student to get a world-class college education in a LOT of schools, many of them pretty far down the US News depth chart. Do your homework, visit, meet and talk to professors and students, get to know the place. Ignore the data. You may be better off following Obi-Wan Kenobi and the ways of the Force: Trust your instincts. Because you may not be able to trust the numbers anymore.

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