Students as ATM Machines

A recently filed lawsuit alleges that officials at the SUNY (State University of New York) College of Agriculture and Technology at Cobleskill deliberately lowered academic standards in an effort to increase enrollment and student retention. Then, when a dean complained about the policy, he was demoted in retaliation.

I’m not going to take a position on the merits of the suit, but if the allegations are true, they’ll buttress a position that I have strongly taken for years—that we should think of college administrators, public or private, as no different from other self-interested decision-makers.

Whoa! Are you saying that the professionals who work for the education of young Americans in non-profit institutions are no different from the profit-hungry people who inhabit the world of business?

Exactly. I’ll come back to that point later.

The SUNY-Cobleskill story was covered in detail in this Inside Higher Ed story. Here are the crucial details.

Dr. Thomas J. Hickey became dean of the school in 2006. Two years later, he found out that the provost had instituted a policy change that lowered the threshold for mandatory academic review of freshmen from a 2.0 GPA to a 1.0 GPA. That is, many academically weak students would be left alone, evidently to avoid alarming them about their situation and perhaps causing them to drop out.

Moreover, Hickey maintains, the school has for a decade been admitting students with such low ability that many were simply incapable of doing college-level work. The upshot: SUNY Cobleskill was so eager to get and keep students, even perilously weak ones, that it made a mockery of academic standards.

The school denies the allegations and calls them “baseless.”  Possibly so, but they have the ring of truth. SUNY-Cobleskill wouldn’t be the first college to lower its standards and make it easier for students to hang on despite weak academic performance.

Temple University professor and formerly vice provost Stephen Zelnick, for example, wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education that academic demands at his school “went slack” in the mid 1990s “when Temple decided to open its doors to all and sundry in order to pay its bills.”

Even without taking such overt steps as lowering the GPA at which the student finds himself in danger of dismissal, there are subtle ways for colleges to increase student retention. One way is to allow or encourage grade inflation. If your main concern is keeping students enrolled rather than upholding academic integrity, let professors know that low grades will be frowned upon. It won’t usually be necessary to go as far as Norfolk State did to dismiss a professor who persisted in giving students the grades they actually earned.

Another way is to water down the curriculum so that difficult courses become optional, allowing students to graduate with having taken and passed a lot of “bunny” courses. For instance, students might fulfill their math requirement with a course like “Consumer Math” that doesn’t call for math capabilities beyond those that high school students should have.

Colleges have for decades been making adjustments designed to keep students—especially marginal ones—happy, enrolled, and continuing to pay them money. SUNY-Cobleskill has had the bad luck to get caught red handed, if the allegations are true.

Now back to that point about educators.

Many people think that those who work for non-profit institutions do so selflessly. That is, they act for the overall good and put aside considerations of their own good. Politicians are the paradigm case. They’re elected by the people and work for that great non-profit entity called government.  They can’t legally accept bribes and therefore they’ll do whatever is best for the public.

Several decades ago, however, economists began to question the view that personal interest disappears once a person takes a job with the government or other non-profit institution. What has come to be called Public Choice Theory encourages us to drop the unrealistic assumption that people turn angelic once they enter the non-profit world.

Assuming that Hickey’s suit against SUNY-Cobleskill isn’t based on a fabrication, it illustrates the point that education professionals can and sometimes do put their own interests ahead of students’ interests. Lowering standards in order to keep weak students enrolled, stringing them along with the false notion that they’re making intellectual progress and face a bright future after graduation seems no different from, say, a for-profit art school that tells every applicant that he has “remarkable talent” and tells every student that he’s making “great progress” as long as he stays enrolled.

Educators and administrators in non-profit schools don’t magically lose their self-interest.  They might care about how much students are learning, but they definitely care about enrollment numbers. Even though there isn’t any direct connection between enrollment and salary, when a public college has low retention and graduation rates, it looks bad and that might lead to budget cuts. The better a school keeps up the façade that it is a great success, the less likely that taxpayers and politicians will question whether the money spent on it is being used wisely.

That’s why this suit doesn’t surprise me. Many colleges need to put up Potemkin Villages to look good and (they hope) avoid scrutiny. Keep in mind the public choice axiom that officials act primarily to advance their own interests and you’ll better understand what goes on in higher education.