Academic Fraud and the Ponzi Scheme of “Higher Learning”

It’s another fall and with the school year now in full session, I thought this was a good time provide students and parents an insider understanding of what to expect out of the higher education experience.  I won’t win any accolades from fellow teachers and administrators in higher ed by pointing out the fraud that four year institutions have become, but the message is still needed for the naïve among us.  To be clear, I’ve never argued that a college education is without value.  Rather, the main problem today is the declining value of that education for the cost incurred and the lack of quality that is now endemic in the typical undergraduate experience.

It’s sad to say, but U.S. higher education increasingly resembles a pyramid scheme.  The schools at the top continue to compete for elite students, by appealing to prospective applicants via the creation of a slew of amenities (the “climbing wall” phenomenon) and offering a unique college “experience.”  Non-elite colleges and universities are the losers in this process, fighting with each other for a dwindling number of state tax dollars amidst huge increases in tuition costs, due to declining state funding and the obsession with an amenities-based “education.”

The massive growth in the administrative apparatus in U.S. schools led to a significant growth in tuition costs.  Administrators across America, elite schools (and professors at those schools), and elite students (whose families can afford exorbitant Ivy League tuition rates) are at the top of the higher ed pyramid.  Teachers at non-elite schools, and non-wealthy students at most educational institutions, make up the proles at the bottom of this pyramid.  They are increasingly sidled with debt for often amounts to a four to five year period of glorified self-indulgence, binge drinking, and diversion from the eventual transition into the “real world.”

There are at least four reasons why the average American should be concerned with the rapidly declining state of higher education.  These include: the widespread abandonment of teaching as a pedagogical priority, the neutering of academic research to focus on meaningless research questions of little societal value, the skyrocketing and dangerous growth in tuition rates, and the sorry state of higher ed employment, seen in the bi-polar distribution of pay within schools, and the decline of faculty job security.  No informed observer can think the above developments are sustainable, and we shouldn’t pretend that they represent anything but a higher education Ponzi scheme.

Concerning the decline of teaching, the state of higher ed is dire.  To put it bluntly, the majority of higher educational institutions (save perhaps community colleges) really don’t care about teaching any more.  They all claim to put teaching at the center of their mandate, but few actually do.  In all the higher ed institutions with which I have been affiliated of over the years, I have never seen teaching quality serve as the determining factor in job searches (except perhaps at community colleges).  Speaking from personal experience, at research based institutions, faculty do not get denied tenure due to mediocre to poor teaching evaluations.  Neither are they hired based on teaching qualifications.  Teaching is often seen as a “necessary evil” to be “endured” by faculty who would rather be researching if they had their choice.  At non-research oriented institutions, being an average teacher to below average teacher is almost always enough to get tenure if accompanied by a “promising” or even decent publication record.  Common sense (one would think) suggests that those candidates with little to no experience in teaching coming out of graduate school are sending a signal to hiring committees that they have little interest in teaching.  If most PhD graduates had a genuine interest in teaching, why do so few take advantage of the adjuncting opportunities that exist for graduate students pursuing their PhDs?  Why do recent graduates, on the whole, have such meager teaching experience?

The emphasis in modern higher ed hiring and graduate training is research, research, research.  Many hiring committees simply assume (sight unseen) that applicants will know how to teach coming into the job, and focus on applicants’ research resumes when making their final hiring decision.  It’s not uncommon to see newly hired faculty at run-of-the-mill state schools working at any given time on a half-dozen to a dozen research papers intended for eventual publication.  This is a very troubling development at anywhere but research-oriented schools.  There is no way that a teacher at the average school requiring professors offer a three or four course load per semester can effectively deliver a quality educational experience to students, while also managing such a massive research load.  In reality, these professors simply give short shrift to their teaching responsibilities, focusing on research instead.  And why not?  If an institution doesn’t value teaching, doesn’t punish bad teachers, and doesn’t hire or promote based on teacher quality, why “waste” that much time with it?  Many professors think that neglecting teaching is necessary in order to “climb the academic latter” in search of “better” (more prestigious) positions at more highly ranked schools.   In the crusade to increase their rankings in the U.S. News and World Report (USNWR) rankings, non-elite schools used to be concerned with teaching (requiring few to no publications for tenure), but are increasing GPA admission standards, raising tuition rates, and seeking to hire faculty based on research qualifications, all of which increase their USNWR rankings.  The problem with this rat race is that if all schools are moving toward emphasizing research, non-elite schools are never going to be able to catch up with more highly ranked, better funded, and more prestigious schools.  Lower ranked schools could move more toward emphasizing teaching and less on research, distinguishing themselves from elite schools, but the façade of “prestige” that comes along with research publications would be “lost.”  Universities and colleges have been able to get away with abandoning educational standards because it is difficult for students to distinguish between good and bad teaching when teaching itself is not highly valued within an institution.  If truly talented teachers aren’t hired and new hires are not encouraged to take teaching seriously, how will students even know what a good teacher looks like?  It can be easy to lose perspective regarding what a good teacher looks like when you rarely see one.

I’ve also spoken at length in previous writing about the neutering of academic research.   Unfortunately, the value of modern social science research is increasingly defined by how esoteric the project is. As the thinking goes, the harder a project is to understand in terms of statistical analysis and word choice, the higher the academic value.  It may sound callous to say, but the vast majority of academic research in the social sciences is of marginal value.  Mountains of research gets produced across hundreds of schools in the U.S., so much so that most of it doesn’t get read by more than a few people in each school (if that).  Only a handful of scholars on average cite the typical academic book or journal article in their own publications.  This is probably not much of a travesty, considering that most of this research is of questionable value to begin with.  To give one example, I attended a major state university in Illinois for my Bachelors and Masters degrees.  The professors at the school seemed to think their research was interesting in stimulating, but in the more than ten years since I left the school, I have yet to see a single piece of research published there ever read by, discussed, or referenced among the many scholars I speak with or in my readings of published academic works.  This reality is not unique to my school; it’s a common problem.  Most research that is published is simply not important enough to read, and this reality speaks to the tremendous resources being wasted at public and private colleges and universities.  The proliferation of journals and journal publications throughout the social sciences has occurred because professors rely on resuming padding to get hired, receive tenure and secure promotions.  With the growing volume of research comes the façade of institutional rigor and prestige, despite the marginal to non-existent value of most of the publications in question.

Why is the vast majority of social science research junk?  The answer is based in how academics are trained in graduate school.  What’s perhaps most disturbing is the complete disinterest of professors training PhD students in emphasizing the importance of practical research, to be used in some way to improve democracy and society.  This goal is rarely idealized in graduate training.  Typically, students randomly pick topics they personally think are “interesting” within a vacuum, despite the fact that most topics of choice are so narrow and esoteric that they are of little interest to even most of those within the discipline itself.  Over-specialization leads to a mismatch between research agendas and teaching.  Most research has little value for the typical undergraduate, leaving many professors ill-equipped for their teaching duties.

Professors that prioritize being public intellectuals, writing for popular as well as academic audiences, are often filtered out during the hiring process in many schools (at very best this quality is rarely valued in job searches).  There seems to be little room in higher ed today for people committed to making the world a better place.  The neutering of research serves a broader social purpose, however.  If professors – those with great resources to expose social injustices and improve the quality of democracy – are disinterested in applied research, then they will play an instrumental role in tacitly reinforcing official propaganda, deception, and societal indoctrination.  Political and economic elites don’t have to worry about intellectual challenges from the academy in social scientists produce academic gibberish and psychobabble.

A third growing problem in higher ed is skyrocketing tuition rates.  To tell one recent but relevant story, I spoke with a friend of the family this last summer about his daughter’s academic future (the discussion happened at the young lady’s high school graduation party).  The friend commented that his daughter would be attending a respectable (although far from highly ranked) state university this fall.  Having attended that school myself, I informed the friend of how alarmed I was at the dramatic tuition increases over the last decade (from a total of $12,500 a year in 2002 to $24,500 a year in 2014).  He responded that he had “no idea” how much the school was going to cost.  This comment was quite disturbing, considering average students now attend college for more than 5 years, which would translate into an incredible $125,000 in total costs.  Many parents have been willing to bear these costs (at the expense of their own retirement savings and in depletion of family wealth) because they were convinced historically that a Bachelor’s degree was a ticket into the middle class.  This still may be true for some, but the question of whether a $125,000 cost is an acceptable tradeoff for a Bachelor’s degree has not been contemplated by most parents I speak with who have children of college age.

The unsustainable growth in cost at four year schools could be mitigated by a willingness on the part of students and parents to attend community colleges.  If administrators at the four-years are increasingly reckless in their budgeting (assuming an endless stream of revenue because of federal student loans), prospective student could push back by voting with their dollars and choosing less expensive two-year schools.  Unfortunately, most recent high school graduates I speak with are convinced that this option is “beneath” them.  The reason is obvious. “Mom and dad” went to a four year school, so going to a community college (even for just two years before transferring) would be “unfair.”  Four year schools, to these families, is a “rite of passage,” with students expecting the “partying” experience that comes along with living on campus and “experiencing” college to its “fullest.”  It also doesn’t help that many high school advisors and teachers pump into their students’ minds the fraud that anything less than a four year school admission out of high school is a sign of a lesser mind and academic failure.  Due to this tone-deaf culture of elitism and instant gratification, many Americans are being set up for failure.  Taking on far higher loans than any student was ever asked to do in previous years, many don’t realize the trouble they’ve gotten into until they seek to enter the workforce.

State officials have increasingly operated under the neoliberal assumption that affordable higher education is no longer a public good.  The wealthy can afford degrees from Harvard, Yale, or Princeton, regardless of the cost, so what does it matter if states take the hatchet to funding for public schools?  All the better in the grand scheme of things, they conclude, since officials can redirect educational funds to increased tax cuts for the affluent.  This crisis of education funding was avoidable to some degree.  On the one hand, schools face a growing crisis in that, if states cut education funding, individual schools will find it difficult to make up that revenue in ways other than raising tuition.  But this is not the entire story.  There were many choices made by administrators in the last decade that confounded the problem of declining state aid.  Schools could have refused to over-invest in amenities such as new swimming pools, brand new dorms, new climbing walls, and expensive recreation centers (among other splurging).  Community colleges make due just fine without these things, as students understand that higher education institutions are supposed to be a place of learning first, rather than self-indulgence.  In the modern amenities-based era, however, students are sold on the “luxury” of the higher education experience, even if it means committing themselves to debt slavery in the long-term.

Administrators at four year schools could have emulated the community college model as they experienced state funding cuts.  This model prioritizes affordable tuition, and values teaching over research that has little real world value.  The standard community college professor teaches at least five course sections a semester (sometimes more in systems that allow for overtime pay).  In contrast, the typical state university, and many liberal arts colleges, allow for a three course work load per semester, while also permitting regular “course releases” for those who engage in research.  This emphasis on reduced teaching puts schools in a tight financial position, as students are forced to subsidize trivial research agendas in the name of indulging professors (and administrators), both of which are convinced that their research is worth more than it really is.  Community colleges get along just fine charging affordable tuition rates because there is no pretense or illusion of grandeur related to research requirements or publishing   Instructors at community colleges understand that their job is to teach, and to do it as well as they can.  Working from this assumption, two-year colleges have done quite well at controlling costs for students and providing for quality, affordable education.

A final area of concern today is the extreme polarization within universities in terms of faculty pay.  Administrators have decided to privilege majors that contribute to private profits in a capitalist economy over other majors that emphasize public goods.  For example, it is well known that business professors, economists, and computer science teachers tend to get paid among the highest in college educational settings, while English literature professors, political scientists, and sociologists (among others) receive much lower than average pay.  Schools prioritize majors that are recognized as having value in the capitalist marketplace.  Economics professors, those with business graduate degrees, and those with computer skills can get jobs in the private marketplace, and use that ability to negotiate for higher pay within academic settings.  In contrast, those professors who seek knowledge for its own sake and in the service of public discourse (professors of literature, historians, philosophers, sociologists, and political scientist, among others), are valued little in the academic marketplace.

With the privileging of some positions at the expense of others, administrators send a clear message regarding which academic disciplines are valued and which are not.  One consequence is that it becomes difficult to maintain the long-term viability of some disciplines (emphasizing public goods) when the pay is so meager, and students are being forced to borrow massive sums simply to get the training in these fields.  It’s also demoralizing for teachers to see such disparity in remuneration within their institution.  The concern is that it will, and is leading professors in under-valued areas to discourage potential students from majoring in disciplines that may no longer be able to pay a living wage.  The establishment of unions across four year institutions could serve as a way of making pay more fair and guaranteeing raises across disciplines, but this seems unlikely to occur in most schools.  Scholars for the most part are socialized to believe in the myth of the “just society,” where those who “work hard enough” are rewarded with the pay they “deserve.”  This intellectual snobbery toward “working class” things like unions allows universities to take advantage of faculty.  What is likely to happen in the future is that the quality of many academic fields will simply suffer.  As the job of a professor becomes less and less valued by society (save a few key disciplines that are well compensated) many disciplines will likely refuse to incur the cost of being trained for jobs that are no longer valued in higher education.  Many professors are beginning to encourage their undergrad students not to get seek a PhD, in light of the mass shrinkage in job availability in recent years, the low pay involved in most disciplines, and the massive student loans that will be incurred.  This toxic soup is a recipe for long-term institutional failure, even if the people running universities fail to see it.

All of the issues above have one thing in common.  They speak to a failure to prioritize education as a public good – one that bears a unique responsibility to promote the enrichment of the American people and society.  I don’t think most of these problems will spell doom for higher ed in the short term, but they do threaten the quality educational institutions in the long-run.  The issue of spiraling student loan debt, however, is the one issue that has the potential to skewer higher ed in the near future.  We are one economic crisis away from higher ed entering dire fiscal straits.  Another crisis will produce increasing unemployment and a further deterioration of what little family wealth exists in “main street” America.  In that context, a $25,000 a year Bachelor’s degree will begin to look like a pipe dream for many families.  When the next economic bubble bursts, the current economic model governing higher ed will begin to crumble. Aside from the further decline in state aid to public schools, many parents will find it difficult to stomach paying $125,000 for a degree that will most certainly be accompanied by dwindling job and career prospects for new graduates.

If institutions abandon their commitment to teaching, continue to churn out worthless research, while bending students over a barrel to pay for an inferior educational experience, then higher education is almost certain to fail.  The seeds have been set for higher ed’s eventual demise.  It will take a great effort from within institutions and from outside of them to reverse many of the harmful trends discussed above.  The quality of American education, however, requires that something be done before it’s too late.

Anthony DiMaggio holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Illinois, Chicago.  He has taught U.S. and global politics at numerous colleges and universities, and written numerous books, including Mass Media, Mass Propaganda (2009), When Media Goes to War (2010), Crashing the Tea Party (2011), and The Rise of the Tea Party (2011).  He can be 

Anthony DiMaggio is Associate Professor of Political Science at Lehigh University. He is the author of Rising Fascism in America: It Can Happen Here (Routledge, 2022), in addition to Rebellion in America (Routledge, 2020), and Unequal America (Routledge, 2021). He can be reached at: A digital copy of Rebellion in America can be read for free here.