The Case for a College Honor Code

The Case for a College Honor Code
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The ethics behind our higher education system are eroding: 86 percent of college students admit to cheating; 97 percent claim they’ve never been found out; and 72 percent say they’ve used personal technology devices, such as a phone, tablet or computer, to cheat.

It’s easy to blame this solely on Millennial fecklessness, but in many respects, these students have been abetted by their education even before arriving on a college campus. Since 1998, the average high school GPA increased from 3.27 to 3.38. Forty-seven percent – almost half – of the class of 2016 graduated with an A average, despite their average SAT score decreasing by 24 points. And this grade inflation doesn’t end in high school; it continues once students head off to college. One study looked at 200 American universities and colleges and found that As accounted for over 40 percent of all grades given by college professors.

Meanwhile, as students do less and less work to get into and graduate from college, they’re paying more and more to do so. According to a recent quarterly report from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, Americans have accrued an astounding $1.3 trillion in student loan debt. At four-year public universities, tuition increased by 9 percent from 2011 to 2016, and at private colleges, tuition has increased more quickly than inflation. Increased costs and lowered standards have triggered real doubts as to the actual value of so-called “higher” education.

Politicians and professors alike have devised solutions large and small for these problems. Some universities have tried quotas to limit the number of As given; some have shared grade distribution for individual classes. Some professors ban technology in the classroom; others use technology to catch cheating students. Some politicians suggest “free” public tuition; others suggest developing trade schools and pushing for STEM education in high school.

These solutions are certainly creative, but they miss the heart of the issue. The real reason that teachers inflate grades and students cheat their way through college and saddle themselves with years of debt is because we’ve taken a transactional view of education. In this view, students are customers, not learners seeking to understand. The university becomes a business, not a place for higher education. Faculty become producers, not professors. A degree is marketed as a commodity, not relished as a hallmark of critical and intellectual formation.

It is no surprise that cheating is commonplace when we are serious about marketing our degrees but unserious about their intellectual and moral significance. It is also no surprise that loan repayment defaults have skyrocketed. When the degree that was supposed to provide a certain kind of job and guarantee a certain quality of life actually puts students in debt for over a decade and keeps them living with mom and dad for years, it’s hardly surprising that they are reluctant to pay the piper.

So, what to do? How do we restore a sense of purpose and accountability to America’s higher education system? The answer lies in shifting from a transactional view of education to a more fully humane view – one in which the student is molded in mind and heart for an independent, honest and reflective life. In such a view, professors attend not merely to students’ intellectual growth but also to their moral and social formation. Students attend to their own formation as well, taking accountability for their own academic performance and for the spiritual and social climate of campus at large.

This, of course, all sounds very noble – and unattainable. But there are, in fact, any number of ways to encourage this kind of attitude towards education. At Hillsdale College, where I serve as provost, we do it through our honor code. Only two sentences in length, the code simply requires that all students behave honorably, honestly, respectfully and dutifully in order to attain self-government.

Its simplicity is intentional. Unlike a complex code of conduct or list of policies, the honor code is designed to be applied broadly, across the various settings and facets of student life. It allows the student to consider the principle and apply it to the particular – a key element not only of self-government but also of intellectual development.

Instead of taking advantage of its simplicity to evade or find loopholes, students have risen to its demands. Indeed, the honor code has gone on to become a formative part of the Hillsdale experience. Almost as soon as freshmen arrive on campus, they sign the honor code in front of their parents and peers. The act symbolizes both their public commitment to developing the virtues enumerated in it and their voluntary agreement to live in a community that will hold them accountable for this development.

The community that has emerged from the honor code is remarkable. In the twelve years since we first established it, I have seen a dramatic improvement in campus culture. Recently, a student decided to conduct a rather rash experiment. While no one was looking, he tossed his wallet over his shoulder and kept walking. Within five minutes, his cell phone rang with the report that it had been found, intact. Though far from perfect, the campus is alive to the high calling of the honor code.

But it is not only that: The college’s vice president for administration, seeing the transformation effected by the honor code, developed a code for the staff – one that, like the students’ honor code, emphasizes their partnership in the mission of the college. When our school was most recently up for re-accreditation, the accreditors all commented on the unusual unity of purpose among the faculty, staff and student body.

We live in a cynical age, where calls to virtue are often met with skepticism at best and mockery at worst – especially from the academy. But if my years at Hillsdale have taught me anything, it’s that far from being lofty and unattainable, these calls to virtue work. They speak to students where they are, engaging their heartfelt desires for community and commitment. Millennials know all too well what it is like to be talked down to and patronized. They respond – often powerfully – to the call of genuine responsibility and rigor.

David Whalen is provost and professor of English at Hillsdale College.

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