It's a bit long for a title, but Teddi Fishman nailed it with that comment during her recent presentation to our faculty. Though her topic was academic integrity, she broadened the discourse (as any English professor would, by the way) to inquire whether "cheating" is the problem or a symptom. And somewhere in the time she spent with us, she made the comment in the subject line.
I've seen steaks returned to kitchens, products returned to stores, service bills disputed, and a host of other examples that demonstrate the expectation of getting what we ordered, purchased, or otherwise paid to receive. We don't even have to think about the concept of receiving full value for payment. So, why would it be any different in education?
Once I started thinking about spending thousands of dollars for an education, then thwarting the process at every turn (which, of course, makes no sense...Teddi's point), I realized that we may not all be talking about the same students. I want to teach students who want to learn. And some of them do. But what about the students who are getting exactly what they paid for--a degree?
Somewhere, we--educators, parents, legislators, business leaders, and administrators--have treated education and a college degree as fungible. It's another variation of means versus ends and it's creating all sorts of unhealthy behavior. And misinformed decisions.
Part of our discussion of academic integrity touched on the reality of cheating. Implicit in the behavior of many students is "Degree now; integrity later." It becomes a far more interesting discussion when you remind students that the people who may hire them, recommend them, or be their coworkers are the same students with whom they are in classes...the ones watching the cheating. I'm not sure most students believe that professional communities are virtual small ponds, shrinking daily with technology. And while fellow students may have limited recourse now, that tends to change dramatically when the classroom becomes the workplace or the community.
If students are paying for education, the alarming declines in academic integrity (increased cheating, plagiarism, free riding) make little sense. If students are paying for degrees, those same behaviors make much more sense. But the more difficult question to face is who created the degree-for-pay market...and why.