The Commodification of College Degrees


The national news tonight featured a story about college cheating. It was not the usual talk about plagiarism, but rather about the prevalence of paying for "original" papers. The story featured "Ed," who has been making a very good living composing student papers on just about any subject. Ed counts his output over the years in the thousands.

Finding a source of papers is about as easy as buying a textbook on Amazon, the newscast asserts. Ed claims to get much of his input for the papers through Google searches and from Amazon book extracts. How lazy can the students be not to do the same searching and avoid the costs of buying something and passing off as their own. Getting caught is not the cost, as it is very hard to spot these papers. The elegant plagiarism software being increasingly used to screen for copied work won't find them. ABC News paid for a sample paper and gave it to 5 or 6 Professors to grade. Only one spotted it as a fake and only because it contained no reference to the sources used in class. She said she would have graded it anyway. It might not have gotten an A or B, but it would have ended up with a passing grade.

The cost is in the failure to learn. What matters more and more is the transcript, attesting to the skills obtained in a professionally oriented college degree program. It matters little whether there is any embedded knowledge that accompanies the piece of paper. College students are primarily responsible and accountable for what they take away from college, unlike children in secondary schools. These younger students are being short-changed by being treated mostly as test-taking machines, not as knowledge-hungry real people. I would not be at all surprised to read a paper someday that shows a strong correlation between high school education driven by testing and cheating in college.

These are not isolated cases. Some 70 percent of college students admit to some form of cheating, the story continues. Ed reports that the parents of some of his clients are paying for the papers and are not only cognizant of what their children are doing, but are completely complicit in the racket.

The sad thing about this story is the implication that many college students see themselves as mere commodities, preparing for a employment market where their value can be reduced to a piece of paper. I do not mean to completely devalue the importance of performance, but only to point to the failure to take anything away when one passes off somebody's work as their own. Flourishing is central to sustainability, as I write about it. One of the prime features of flourishing is authenticity--the ability to act on one's own deep-seated values, rather than been driven by the cultural voice of the crowd. These inner values take time and work to develop. They come, among many other sources, from the hard work of writing, and probing the meaning of whatever is at hand. It is very hard for these values to get embodied against the pressures of that crowd. Cheating completely short circuits the process and send the wrong signals to the place where authenticity dwells on our bodies. This is another example of what goes wrong when the market turns people and things into commodities.