Journal Prompt #1- Hsin-Yen Liu

What determines a student’s mark? Knowledge? Intelligence? Effort? Sure. But apparently there’s one more thing: money.

In 2011, The Toronto Star published an article revealing the issue of students paying for grades.  Basically, certain private secondary schools, known as “credit mills,” allow students to earn easy and inflated marks for a fee of $500 to $980 per course. Below are some of the findings on credit mills:

  • Grades at some private schools arbitrarily increased upon request
  • Credits granted with less than half of mandatory class hours completed
  • Missing student assessments
  • Teachers without proper qualifications and those who “do not understand” evaluation and assessment
  • Rewriting of tests for $100
  • Students left to write tests with little supervision and access to the Internet.

Most people, I assume, would frown upon the idea of paying to get good marks. If students can exchange paper bills for better marks, then what would become of the meaning of marks? Wouldn’t marks become a measure of wealth, not ability? However, as questionable as this credit-mill business may seem, it exists, and it seems quite successful.

The question is: why?

Incentives and Opportunity Costs
We can use incentives and opportunity costs to explain why private schools are willing to sell “A-credits,” as well as why some students are willing to pay large amounts of money for higher marks.

For the credit mills, it is clear why they want to give easy marks to students: economic incentives (money). By allowing students to get high marks effortlessly, the schools attract desperate students who will pay $500 to $980— as mentioned earlier—for each of the courses that they take. This makes a lucrative business that the schools would definitely not want to miss out on. So basically, for the credit mills— which have nothing to offer (they obviously don’t offer good education if they have unqualified teachers) except easy marks—

Now, how about the students? Why would some students want to obtain their credits from credit mills? Well, we can analyze the opportunity costs— the values of the next best choice.

If the students choose to go to regular schools, their opportunity cost would include the higher marks that they could have gotten from the credit-mills. This could very well translate into getting into the desired university programs and receiving scholarships. Also, perhaps less importantly, the opportunity cost would also include some extra time; if they have gone to the credit-mill schools, they would have gotten their credits with less than half of the mandatory class hours, as well as fewer assessments to spend time worrying about.

On the other hand, if the students choose to buy easy marks, their opportunity cost would include the $500 to $980 that they spend on each of their courses, as well as “proper” education. What do I mean by proper education? Well, education with qualified teachers, enough class hours, and reasonably difficult tests during which the Internet is not allowed —none of which you can find in the description of a credit-mill class. By not receiving proper education, it is obvious that the students do not study or learn as much as they would have in a regular class.

Evidently, for the students who are choosing to get their credits from credit-mills instead of regular high schools, the latter is costlier. That is, they place more value on getting higher marks (and more free time) than on the course fees and a proper high school education. As a result, they choose to sacrifice their money and their high school education so that they don’t miss out on higher marks and free time. Why? Some of them may know/feel that the only way for them to get to into their desired university programs is to pay for the required admission marks. Since getting into the “right” university programs is so important, nothing — not even bad high school education or high financial costs— will stop them from doing whatever they can to ensure their placements in the programs. Or, they might just have “screwed up” very badly in public school, to the point where buying their marks seems to be their only solution.

So here we go. We have private schools that are willing to supply good marks at high prices, and students who are willing to pay those prices to get better marks. This is why the credit-mill industry is successful.

Credit Mills: Good or Bad?
Hmm, so perhaps credit mills are not that bad after all. Some students get the marks that they need, and the credit mills get to pocket large amounts of money. It’s a voluntary trade, and everyone seems happier. However, this is only a superficial observation. If we compare the efficiency and and equity of two school systems—one with and one without credit mills—we will see that credit mills are indeed bad.

Efficiency: one system is more efficient than another if some people are better off and no one is worse off. So, in the short term, it may seem more efficient to have credit mills— some private schools are better off with more money, certain students are happier with paid high marks, and the remaining students are just getting the marks that they normally get. Some people are better off, and the others are not worse off.

However, on the long run, having credit mills is definitely not more efficient. The private schools are still better off with more money, but many of the students are worse off. According to the Toronto Star article, students who pay for grades “are beating out more academically deserving teens for university spots and lucrative scholarships.” This makes the “more academically deserving teens” worse off. In addition, the students who pay for grades will eventually “flunk out because they’re not ready.” So they are worse off too.

In the end, the credit mill industry only benefits the credit mills, and it harms many students. Thus, a system with credit mills is definitely not more efficient. However, this is not to say that a system without credit mills is more efficient, because it makes the private schools worse off.

Equity: According to research fellow Harry Jones from Britain’s Overseas Development Institute, equity means that people are treated as equals, and it concerns three major areas:

1. Equal life chances: There should be no differences in outcomes based on factors for which people cannot be held responsible.
2. Equal concern for people’s needs: Some goods and services are necessities, and should be distributed according solely to the level of need.
3. Meritocracy: Positions in society and rewards should reflect differences in effort and ability, based on fair competition.

It is quite clear from the above criteria that it would be inequitable if students can pay for grades; credit mills create unequal life chances. Students who are born to poorer families are at a disadvantage because of a factor for which they are not responsible— their parents’ income. Also, if one student is getting a better mark than another student because they (or most likely, their parents) have paid for it, clearly that does not reflect “differences in effort and ability,” does it? It would not be a fair competition if students can pay for grades.

On the other hand, if credit mills did not exist, a difference in marks would be a more accurate reflection of the differences in effort and ability. The outcome would be much fairer and much more equitable. So from this perspective, credit mills should definitely not exist.

To sum it up, credit mills do not make a school system more efficient, for even though they benefit the private schools, they make many students worse off. Also, credit mills make the school system a lot less equitable and fair. Seeing as a school system should aim to benefit the students, there is really no reason why credit mills should exist.

Students should not be able to pay for grades.

Solutions?
Now that we have established that credit mills are bad, how can they be eliminated?

Actually, back in 2009, the school ministry attempted to reduce the problem by flagging every private school credit with a “P” on the transcript. They did it in the hopes that universities would disregard the undeserved high marks, and thus lowering the opportunity cost for obtaining credits the regular way (the high marks bought from credit mills will then have little value).  However, many universities, such as Wilfred Laurier University, University of Toronto, and University of Western Ontario, still take the approach of “a grade is a grade is a grade.” The “P” tells nothing about the nature of the marks except that they are earned from private schools, but not all private schools are credit mills. In other words, the extra “P” did nothing to change the opportunity costs for students.

An inexpensive improvement on the existing “P” would be adding the names of the private schools onto the transcripts. This could perhaps give universities a better idea of whether the marks are legitimately earned or not. However, Jennifer Yang, the author in this Toronto Star article, feels rather pessimistic about it; she questions whether universities would take the trouble to create a ranking system for all the private schools.

I believe that the solution lies in getting to the root of the problem—identifying and doing more about the schools that are selling marks. As Yang has mentioned in her article, there should be better inspections: suspicious schools should be inspected more to ensure that they are doing everything properly. And to avoid an increase in spending, schools with good records should be inspected less often.  Also, once identified as being credit mills, private schools should face more consequences. Currently, schools can get their credit-granting authority revoked if is found that they have problems. However, they can re-open as soon as one year after the they are shut down! Clearly, there should be a change in policy to increase this waiting time, so as to discourage schools from doing wrong.

The ministry should add negative economic incentives too: if they fine credit mills large amounts of money for selling grades, then the opportunity costs for doing the business would increase significantly. Not only only would the schools be shut down (for a while), they would also lose the profits that they have earned in the previous year(s). If the fines are large enough, the opportunity costs for selling grades would rise to a level at which credit-mills would find it more desirable and less costly to run their schools properly (to offer real education, not just marks).

A (Not So) Brief Recap
To sum everything up, there exists a problem in our education system where students are able to pay for easy grades by going to certain private schools known as “credit mills.” They pay something in the range of $500 and $980 for each course, and in return they get high marks that require almost no effort.

The credit-mill industry is successful because the private schools want to earn money, and students value high marks. However, being successful doesn’t make it good: not only does it make some students worse off (thereby not making the school system more efficient), it also makes the school system less equitable.

To eliminate credit mills, more inspections should be done so that the problem-schools can be better identified. Also, credit mills should face worse consequences once they are identified. They should have to wait for more than one year before they can re-apply for their licenses, and they should be fined (heavily). With proper incentives, the opportunity cost for selling marks could be increased to a point where it is actually costlier than that of not selling grades.

Paying for grades is a serious problem, but not one that cannot be fixed.

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