Opinion: Daily Journal

The K-12 Roots of the UNC Scandal

Kenneth Wainstein’s report, “Investigation of Irregular Classes in the Department of African and Afro-American Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill,” detailed a long history of academic fraud at North Carolina’s flagship public university.

More than 3,100 students, nearly half of them student-athletes, received (often favorable) grades in Afro-American Studies courses that required no attendance, no meaningful faculty participation, and no consistent standards for student work. Although many nonathletes enrolled in these courses, they were designed to boost the grade point averages of student-athletes, preserving their NCAA eligibility.

Understandably, much of the reaction to the report has focused on ways that faculty and staff enabled students to circumvent the university’s academic requirements. According to Wainstein, faculty and staff conspired to do this because they “felt sympathy for underprepared students who struggled with the demanding Chapel Hill curriculum.” But we should be outraged equally that high schools granted diplomas to students who appeared to be functionally illiterate. Calling them “underprepared” is an understatement. Calling them high school graduates is a travesty.

First, it is necessary to acknowledge that none of the 3,100 students has been identified. As such, it is impossible to identify the high schools that awarded their diplomas. According to the university’s institutional research office, nearly 70 percent of incoming UNC-Chapel Hill undergraduates graduated from a North Carolina public school. Another 14 percent graduated from a public school in another state. In other words, this is likely a public and private school problem in North Carolina and beyond.

Regardless of the type or location of schools, the Wainstein report summarizes research and writing deficiencies that are common in middle and high school classrooms — excessive outside assistance, adoption of informal writing styles, and cut-and-paste essays. These are learned, harmful, and often-accepted behaviors aided by complicit parents, negligent teachers, peer pressure, and easy access to online resources.

One problem, which often begins in middle school, is that struggling students receive inordinate assistance from a parent, tutor, or teacher. By the time these students reach college, they are required to complete research and writing projects on their own, a skill we should expect any college-bound student to possess.

Yet, one Chapel Hill tutor recounted that a number of students she encountered simply “could not write a paper on their own.” Another tutor agreed, saying “players were so woefully underprepared that they could not draft a paper without assistance.” In some cases, tutors or academic counselors simply wrote or edited significant portions of student-athletes’ essays. Of course, these students were more than happy to allow them to do so.

In addition, it appeared to be an accepted practice for UNC-Chapel Hill students and student-athletes to submit essays that, according to the Wainstein report, “were largely ‘cut and paste’ jobs that simply copied text from publicly available sources.” Unfortunately, middle and high school students knowingly submit essays full of passages that plagiarize various online sources. It is a pervasive problem. A 2013 Pew survey of 2,500 middle and high school teachers found 68 percent agreeing that “digital tools make students more likely to take shortcuts and not put effort into their writing.”

The fact that students arrived at Chapel Hill with few writing or research skills does not excuse the systematic fraud perpetrated by university faculty and staff. But it does call into question the value of a high school diploma. A high school diploma should signify students’ attainment of the skills and knowledge that undergird the roles and responsibilities of adulthood. Perhaps the problem is that many consider college to be a respite from adulthood, rather than its initiation.

Dr. Terry Stoops is director of research and education studies at the John Locke Foundation.