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article imageOp-Ed: Lawsuit against UNC raises big questions about higher education

By Calvin Wolf     Nov 12, 2014 in Politics
Former UNC athlete Michael McAdoo is suing the university for allegedly depriving him of a quality education, which it promised when he signed. This first big lawsuit coming out of the UNC scandal promises to raise some big questions for higher education.
It is not exactly a shock that a big, sports-obsessed Division 1 powerhouse was keeping student-athletes eligible for games by padding their GPAs with blow-off classes. Sad, yes, but not shocking. Even in high school, athletes have an advantage in passing their classes because teachers, and even administrators, are under pressure to keep kids "in the game," but in terms of graduation and in terms of the gridiron. Failing grades often end up being boosted to Cs during the last week of the grading period. Sometimes coaches pressure other faculty into passing a starter so he (or she) will be eligible on game day. Sometimes the player begs and pleads, and the teacher relents because he or she knows that love of the game may be the only thing keeping the student in school.
There is a lot of pressure to pass athletes who underperform in the classroom, and it is a widespread problem. It is unfair to other students and it is unfair to teachers. It harms society as a whole through rampant grade inflation and the elevation of sports above academics.
A new lawsuit may finally bring about a much-needed national conversation on the subject of grade inflation and what the parameters of "higher education" are. According to TIME, former University of North Carolina athlete Michael McAdoo is suing the school for failing to provide him with a quality education. According to McAdoo, the Tar Heels coaches promised him a good education at the school, but then shuffled him into blow-off classes. Eventually, McAdoo was ruled ineligible by the NCAA for receiving improper help from a tutor on a paper for an African-American Studies class.
Since McAdoo's ineligibility, the UNC scandal has blown wide open, with investigators finding that there was widespread academic dishonesty involved in keeping thousands of student-athletes eligible for play over many years. Numerous "paper classes," so named because students only had to turn in a single paper for an easy grade, were created within the African-American Studies department, allegedly to accommodate athletes. People are appalled...but we still don't know how far complicity in the scheme ran.
Now McAdoo is blaming the school, and courts may decide where burdens of responsibility lie in terms of higher education. The issue is complicated.
First a foremost, what constitutes a "good" college education? McAdoo is alleging that UNC failed to provide this...but what is it, exactly? How is it measured? Rigor of course syllabi? Student grades? Number and length of assignments? Number and length of tests? Does a multiple-choice test rank lower than an essay test in terms of making a college education good? While poor grades may indicate a decent student in bad classes, it may also indicate a bad student in decent classes.
This brings us to the second question, which is the reasonable role of student effort and skill. Not all college students will make good grades. How much of this is the fault of the student? Some students are lazy. Some are unintelligent. Some are both.
Third, are college students to be considered adults? All are, legally, adults, being age 18 or older and no longer enrolled in K-12 education. In K-12, we place tremendous burdens on teachers to prove that there is no possibility that bad grades are due to poor-quality instruction. We teachers must call parents, offer unlimited tutorials, and are pressured to provide ample extra credit and drop missing grades. This is because, as non-adults, we assume K-12 students should not be held to adult standards. But what of college students? As an adult, what responsibility did McAdoo have to seek to change his own education situation?
Fourth, what ethical considerations come into play in regard to the fact that college students are paying customers? Most students want a "good" college education...but not one that is too difficult. Many college students react angrily to situations they dislike by pointing out that they are paying to be there. As paying customers, should college students have the right to demand certain uniform standards of academic rigor and professionalism among their courses and professors? But, should colleges be expected to adjust their standards, perhaps for the worse, based on the whims of consumers?
Finally, what of taxpayers and citizens? Should we also consider how guaranteeing a "good" college education to students would impact them? Will it raise tax burdens? Will it lead to further grade and credential inflation, making it harder for everyone to compete fairly? In the long run, could we end up with a society of college graduates who take no responsibility for their actions?
McAdoo, for his part, does have plenty of good points in his case. As a college athlete, he was far from free of pressure and influence. The coaches owned his scholarship and most of his waking hours. Can we really argue that he, like non-athletes, was free to choose different classes and pursue his own destiny? Perhaps not.
The McAdoo case, if it goes the distance, could lead to tremendous ramifications for the education sector, and should be watched closely. Though I sympathize with McAdoo as an individual, I loathe the possibility that colleges could be forced by courts to become K-12 schools, made to water down their material and treat adults like children in the name of "guaranteeing" a "good" education.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
More about Michael McAdoo, University of North Carolina, Tar heels, NCAA, Higher education
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