The fake class scandal at University of North Carolina is outrageous. Over 18 years, more than 3,000 students took classes that did not exist: courses that had no class time, no assignments, no meetings with a professor — just a single term paper that no one would read.
The scandal is seen as another black eye for college sports: athletes were shepherded off into non-existent classes so they could keep a decent GPA and stay eligible to play. Athletes' academic counselors touted the benefit of the fake courses to coaches:
But the scandal is bigger than athletics. Half the students enrolled in UNC's fake classes were not athletes. They were average, everyday students. What happened at UNC is an extreme symptom of a widespread problem: nobody outside colleges really knows what, or if, students are learning.
Are college students learning? We don't really know
Presumably, the one-woman diploma mill in UNC's Department of African and Afro-American Studies was an aberration. But the assumption that students are learning in college rests more on trust, faith, and tradition than many people realize. Even within a single university, departments and individual professors have a lot of latitude to decide what students will learn and how and when they will learn it. That's how UNC's administration can plausibly claim they knew nothing about the 18-year fraud.
Defining learning, let alone measuring it, is hard. Nobody wants colleges to fall victim to the standardized testing mania that's swept K-12. But even when colleges have information that can approximate learning without a test — such as how much time students study, how engaged they say they are in their classes, or how frequently they have to write lengthy papers — they usually don't disclose it.
As for transcripts, they can be inscrutable. Was an independent study an easy waste of time or even an all-out fraud, as some independent studies were at UNC? Or was it a rigorous, life-changing experience working one-on-one with a professor? Or something in between? Is a B in Sociology 101 at Wellesley, which is fighting grade inflation, the same as a B in Sociology 101 at Yale? And what skills did students actually pick up in those sociology classes? It's anybody's guess.
The evidence suggests students might not be learning much
In 2011, two researchers published Academically Adrift, a book arguing that students were learning next to nothing in college. The book tracked 2,300 students at more than a dozen colleges and universities, looked at their scores on a test of critical reasoning and writing, and found that about one-third didn't make any significant improvements in their critical thinking skills in college.
On average, college students study about 15 hours per week, according to the National Survey of Student Engagement — down from 24 hours per week in the 1960s. The most popular undergraduate major is business, which requires the least amount of studying outside class and produces the lowest scores of any major on the GMAT graduate school exam.
Every college wants to believe its students are in the two-thirds who did learn something, or that their students work harder and learn more than the national average. But most don't make results from surveys or assessments on student learning public.
Some colleges are working on making this information more readily available to students. Others are trying to make transcripts more useful by listing the skills students have mastered rather than how many credits they've accumulated. But both efforts are in early stages.
There are no college rankings based on learning outcomes. That means even students who care deeply about academics, more than they care about a winning football team or a fancy dorm, are forced to rely on rough proxies, such as graduate school admissions rates, faculty prestige, or average class size.
The scariest part of the UNC scandal: the power of good intentions
The UNC scandal shows that when this lack of transparency intersects with misguided good intentions, the results can be damaging. The most striking thing from the detailed report on university wrongdoing is that Debby Crowder is portrayed as both the mastermind of a vast and appalling fraud scheme and as a woman who genuinely believed she had students' best interests at heart.
Crowder had struggled herself as a student at UNC, and she and a group of other women at the university — the report calls them the "good old girls' network" — made a point of directing students who were floundering to the fake classes. They didn't just help athletes, but also students who had been sexually assaulted, or who were suffering from physical or mental health problems. The hope, the report said, was that a class that didn't require work might give students space to breathe and alleviate some of the pressure of attending a selective university.
They weren't helping the students. They were cheating them out of what they'd paid for: an education. But as a college degree gets increasingly valuable in the job market and policymakers pressure colleges to increase their graduation rates, it's easy to see why a small minority of people might think that helping a few unqualified students graduate is doing everyone a favor.
Most faculty and administrators take their academic standards very seriously. But all it takes is a handful who don't. The 3,000 students who took fake classes at UNC are a tiny fraction of the alumni who graduated during the 18 years the classes were offered, but their experience could seriously damage the university's credibility.
There could easily be another UNC scandal elsewhere. Unless we all start to focus more on what students learn to earn a degree, and less on the degree as an end in itself, there probably will be.