Poll results show college students are learning ‘do your own thing’ ethics

College students are being taught to behave unethically in today’s workplace despite their own personal beliefs, according to a report released July 23 by the National Association of Scholars.

Zogby International, an international polling firm, conducted the study for NAS. The national survey of 401 randomly selected college seniors ran from April 9-16th at both public and private four year institutions, asking those seniors questions relating to their instruction of ethical or moral issues.

“These results have disturbing implications both for America’s economy and its institutions of higher education,” said NAS President Stephen H. Balch. “They suggest that our colleges and universities, however unwittingly, are contributing to, and perpetuating, the ethical laxness behind the recent scandals at Enron, Worldcom, and other major American firms.”

The survey results have generated feature stories nationwide, including coverage by U.S. News & World Report, Wall Street Journal, Bill O’Reilly, and Rush Limbaugh. Balch said that the unexpected amount of coverage was quite gratifying, and that it showed that “our survey results indicate the need for some major reflection about the role of colleges and universities in forming their students’ ethical perspectives, especially in light of recent corporate scandals.”

In the survey, college seniors were asked, “Which of the following statements about ethics was most often transmitted by those of your professors who discussed ethical or moral issues?” Nearly three-fourths answered that “what is right and wrong depends on the differences in individual values and cultural diversity.”

Just one-fourth agreed that “there are clear and uniform standards of right and wrong by which everyone should be judged,” and two percent were “not sure.”

“The disturbing implication for American society at large is that people are getting a kind of ‘do your own thing’ view of ethics,” said Balch. Of the respondents saying right or wrong “depends,” 85 percent were either education or pre-professional majors (e.g., law and medicine), and 79 percent were humanities and social science majors. Among those choosing “clear and uniform standards,” 33 percent came from science or math majors and 33 percent were in miscellaneous majors.

Despite the students’ lack of clarity in determining right and wrong, a full 97 percent believe they have been prepared to behave ethically in their future professional lives, according to the study. The same poll, however, revealed other beliefs and attitudes among college students that do not inspire confidence in their ability to make ethical judgments.

For example, asked to rank common business practices by importance, the largest plurality of students polled (38 percent) responded with “to recruit a diverse workforce in which women and minorities are advanced and promoted.” Students also were asked in which fields they thought an “anything goes” attitude would lead to success, and the top fields chosen were business (28 percent of students responding), journalism (20 percent), law (16 percent), teaching (five percent), science and medicine (five percent), civil service (five percent), religion (three percent), and military (two percent). Only eight percent chose “none.”

Another worrisome aspect of this survey is, as Balch said, the fact that “a free society depends on strong ethical principles.” Students today, however, are not taught to understand the concepts of property rights and free markets, but they are subject to the consistent mischaracterization of capitalism and the basis for contract law. They are taught not just to neglect the foundations to our constitutional rights, but sometimes even to struggle against them.

“To be sure the foundations of ethical education are laid in the home and school,” Balch says. “At best, universities can only confirm the lessons taught there. But they can also undermine these lessons by providing sophisticated excuses for succumbing to the temptations of greed and power.”