Bryan Caplan  

The Meaning of Cheating

Trustworthiness > Trust... Individualism: True and False...
A beautiful argument, from Alex Tabarrok via me to the cover of Newsweek via Megan McArdle:
For many students, college is less about providing an education than a credential--a certificate testifying that they are smart enough to get into college, conformist enough to go, and compliant enough to stay there for four years.

When I was a senior, one of my professors asked wonderingly, "Why is it that you guys spend so much time trying to get as little as possible for your money?" The answer, Caplan says, is that they're mostly there for a credential, not learning. "Why does cheating work?" he points out. If you were really just in college to learn skills, it would be totally counterproductive. "If you don't learn the material, then you will have less human capital and the market will punish you--there's no reason for us to do it." But since they think the credential matters more than the education, they look for ways to get the credential as painlessly as possible.

My only regret is that Megan didn't mention how I embellished my point over the phone with an Eeyore impression.  What human capital extremism implies about academic cheating: "You're o-o-o-o-nly cheating yours-e-e-e-elf."

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COMMENTS (10 to date)
Luke G. writes:

What it boils down to is this: employers put a huge premium on potential employees having a college degree. Is this mostly because
A) A college education instills something valuable into a graduate or
B) Earning a college degree reveals some valuable qualities of the graduate.

The longer I teach at the university, the more convinced I am that it is B.

Infopractical writes:

If many college graduates are earning valuable skills, then rewarding the degree seems natural. Some people are simply going to take advantage of that and game the system. Those who gain valuable skills get devalued in the process resulting in less and less incentive to spend the time gaining those skills.

Perhaps we need to retrain the gate keepers.

Also, has anyone done the study on the "increasing" premium of the college education to determine whether the increase in the ratio is a matter of value added or a matter of a denominator where the only people left are mostly the people who simply cannot gain admission? Is there a Simpson's paradox at play?

Kevin writes:

I'm about to head back to school for a M.Sc. purely for the credential. I expect to acquire zero new skills (I've been working in the field as a consultant for 5 years, I often out-compete or end up supervising graduates of the program I'm entering, etc), but having the new degree will give me about a ~36% wage premium based on what I'm seeing in the market right now. I've just had enough being told I can only be paid X instead of 1.36X simply because of my level of credential. The various organizations I work for often get money for grants, and so the amount they can pay is pegged to the credentials I have rather than my skills or services I can provide.

If I could just hand someone the $9000 in exchange for a degree instead of sitting in courses and thesis committee meetings for a year, I'd do it in a heart beat.

Brandon Berg writes:

There are fields---sciences and engineering, mostly---where the human capital model pretty clearly is true. Knowing a lot about chemistry is a hard requirement for a career in chemistry, and virtually no eighteen-year-olds enter college having that knowledge already.

Is there less cheating in those fields?

Krishnan writes:

At the Masters level (and slowly creeping towards the PhD) - it is not what you know, but the degrees you have - this is very true for many defense contractors, most Federal Agencies - who do not care - and do not even know what it means to have a bachelors or a masters or a PhD.

There are good arguments to be made about credentialing as the reason most people come to colleges/universities for - this is true even in the sciences and engineering. There are many who could have (if they wanted to, without going to classes) taught them the subject matter to pass all exams with flying colors. I see the demand for credentialing without having to shell out $200,000 (or more) coming.

I am concerned about the effect credentialing has on the universities/colleges - the trend is to get in as many "customers" as possible and get them out as quickly as possible - without regard to what they really know. So, universities/colleges are infact actively downgrading the quality of the credentials awarded - and employers are waking up to that, albeit a bit slowly.

Apparently, some local employer decided that from now on, they would only interview students with a GPA higher than 3.8 (or some such) (apparently, they were getting MANY applications with VERY HIGH GPA's) - when word got back about this, guess what the attitude of many was? "Hey, from now on, we will make sure that MORE of our students are awarded the A - so we do not make them uncompetitive in the market place" - that is, the response was NOT one of "Oh, we have a problem with grad inflation, let's figure out what is going on" - but "Hey, lets inflate the grades some more"

Universities have only themselves to be blamed for the grade inflation - they are chasing dollars without much regard to the product - and it will in the end, implode. We all know that the ratio of administrative to teaching expenses are indeed going up rapidly - those that do not teach are getting even more hungry and keep demanding ever more resources.

Sieben writes:

If the signaling model of education is true, then the market value of a college degree should be very close to having a commensurate amount of work experience.

I don't see why an employer would prefer a liberal arts major over someone with 4 years of steady work experience. And yet my intuition is that this is the case.

Floccina writes:

If college was human capital employers would not care much if a student flunks a class every semester as long as he takes it over passes it.

Some colleges even limit the number of classes the you can take over and get grade forgiveness on, because they know that it is more about signaling than learning.

J.D. writes:

I think it'd be more complete to say:
"For many students, college is less about providing an education than a credential--a certificate testifying that they are smart enough to get into college, conformist enough to go, compliant enough to stay there for four years, and steadfast enough to finish."

MingoV writes:

Unfortunately, cheating is rampant among those who truly need to learn something in college: future physicians. They need to know chemistry, biology, physics, and organic chemistry. They also need good writing and communication skills. Yet, studies as far back as the 1990s have shown that over 60% of medical students cheated during college. But, they don't have to cheat in medical school: most schools guarantee that most of the questions on their upcoming multiple choice exams will be drawn from prior exams that are available to the students. Those who don't wish to learn medical sciences can just memorize old exam questions and pass their courses.

I am not comforted by the fact that many physicians are credentialed rather than educated.

Note: I taught medical students and residents for almost 20 years.

Bernie writes:

Good luck with the book, I'll buy a copy as soon as it's available. I hope you include a comparison between getting a degree and joining the military. Just remember, you have to pay for college, the military pays you.

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