The UNC Cheating Scandal and Why It Matters To You

The UNC Cheating Scandal and Why It Matters To You

Recently an academic cheating scandal rocked the world of college athletics. Over the last eighteen years more than three thousand students at the University of North Carolina (UNC) “took” classes that did not exist. In many cases this boosted GPAs to ensure athlete eligibility and the graduation of otherwise unqualified students. The NCAA as a whole faces increased scrutiny in light of the findings and without doubt the university’s football and basketball teams face some stiff penalties.

What surprises many interested observers of the unfolding events is the collective yawn coming from those outside the world of sports regarding this academic fraud. Half of the students involved had no affiliation with sports but few seem to care that numerous non-athletes cheated. This apathy is why this scandal matters to you.

The fact that we are not shocked or angered at this beyond its sports implications goes a long way toward explaining why your future boss may not put much stock in your degree. We have become numb to such revelations of tainted, if not meaningless, transcripts. We increasingly understand your education doesn’t tell us anything about what you have learned.

As Libby Nelson of Vox magazine so ably points out in her article on the UNC affair, academic scandals of various sorts come to light all the time. As such serious-minded students and legitimate college programs have fallen victim to perceptions of low standards everywhere. Negative trends of the college world at large will reflect poorly on you, the individual student. The following facts, and the questions that arise from them, potentially devalue your degree in the marketplace:

  • The fact that fake, non-existent, classes can go unnoticed by the hierarchy of a major university for over 18 years. Does this transcript mean anything?
  • Grade inflation has become a rampant problem nationwide with even the country’s most elite universities giving out higher and higher grades to undeserving students. Did you really take on the rigors normally associated with earning this GPA?
  • There is no standardization or measure of what makes up an education within a college’s departments or between the same programs at different colleges. How do I know if Applicant X with his A+ average from SMU is a better candidate than Applicant Y with her B+ average from MSU?
  •  We have become accustomed to degrees of dubious benefit and laughable course descriptions. Any time a college offers a degree in adventure education or classes in queer musicology or vampires it taints the validity of education as a disciplined pursuit, particularly when it comes to the liberal arts. Did you get your (potentially meaningless) degree by merely taking enough half-baked classes to cross your credit hour threshold? 
  • Pop culture, particularly movies and television, regularly portrays college as one big party and college students as beer-laden, sex-crazed adult-aged-adolescents. These get marketed to youth viewers but your boss has seen the previews. Am I hiring a college-challenged and matured professional or do I need to babysit John Blutarski?
  • Colleges frequently churn out educated idiots. As professors/authors Arum and Roksa famously pointed out in their work Academically Adrift there is often very little demonstrable improvement in learning and critical thinking skills from the time students enter college and when they graduate. Why not just employ and train a promising high school graduate instead?

This has several practical implications for the aspiring graduate. Given that degrees sometimes have dubious value in the marketplace and that students often get a bad rap as less-than-challenged, graduates must be prepared to prove their worth beyond the degree they hold. Increasingly students must look past their graduation requirements and think about how to use one’s time in college to stand out from the crowd. For instance:

  • You must be prepared to demonstrate your abilities. We can’t assume you actually have any just because you have a degree.
  • You must be prepared to start low on the food chain and work very hard to prove your value wherever you land. Your degree will put your foot in the door but it may not give you a leg up beyond that.
  • You must expect to need further and more standardized proofs of your skills and knowledge. With a lack of regularity between colleges and programs, employers and clients increasingly want to see some sort of certification or specialized training in addition to a degree. For instance, accounting majors can expect to need a CPA or EA, computer science majors to have C++ or ACE certifications, and psych majors to pick up counseling licenses before anyone takes them seriously.
  • It pays to have work experience under your belt. No matter how minor or “unimportant” the job, bosses feel more assured about a candidate who has work experience. You not only have academic merits to show, but you also demonstrated you can handle real-world responsibility and didn’t spend your spare time running around in a toga. We also know that professors will talk up graduates to reflect favorably on the program but employers will shoot straighter with each other when one is checking references.
  • You can expect any outward sign of youthful immaturity to plow the job application process. Spring break pictures on Facebook, frat tats, and participation solely in youth-oriented organizations make employers question whether you used college as your first crack at adulthood or as an opportunity to extend your adolescence.

So there you have it. As you see the UNC scandal unfolding on ESPN don’t think of it as merely a problem for the world of college sports. This affects you and you must work strategically to rise above it.