The following is adapted from Rough Diamonds.

It is a commonly held belief that everyone–no matter what–deserves a formal higher education. However, that view, while certainly laudable from the point of view of giving everyone an equal chance, is too simplistic. And if we want to make formal education truly useful, both now and in the future, it’s important to rethink our current model, including what criteria qualifies someone to receive higher education.

Now, I realize this view may seem counterintuitive, or even harsh. However, when an academic institution admits unqualified students, there are severe consequences for the students, the teachers, and the institution itself. All of us involved in academia–educators, administrators, and students–must examine how the current model is failing and begin to do the necessary work to fix it.

The 4 Consequences of Admitting Unqualified Students

While teaching undergraduates at a top regional university in the Middle East, I worked with many students who showed a brightness and eagerness to learn. However, I doubted others had the intellectual ability and mindset to pursue higher education. Some of them really tried, and I admired the effort they put in. However, that did not mitigate their struggles, and unfortunately universities are not there to certify effort, no matter how commendable that is as a human trait. 

This situation raised a number of questions in my mind. Most importantly, I began to wonder what the consequences were of admitting unqualified students. Further observation showed me 4 major consequences, all of which contribute to the breakdown at every level of integrity in education. Let’s look at each consequence, one by one.

Consequence #1: A Surge in Academic Dishonesty

One of the consequences of admitting unqualified students is a surge, almost immediately, in academic dishonesty. Given the profile of my students, I was not surprised to see some trample all over norms and values we hold dear in the academic world. That plagiarism, cheating on tests and exams, outsourcing class assignments, etc. were rampant is in part a result of the situation created by admitting unqualified students. 

Blame can be laid at the feet of the students, but it is the educational institutions that created the context and conditions for such behavior to blossom. 

Consequence #2: The Education of All Students is Compromised

Beyond a rise in academic dishonesty, there is an even more serious consequence to admitting unqualified students: doing so leads to the risk that the education of all the students gets compromised. There is a real threat of this occurring because students and faculty might adjust their behaviors as a result of the context they find themselves in. 

Unless they are truly self-motivated and understand what is unfolding around them, qualified students get the wrong benchmarks and might begin to slack in drive, motivation, and ultimately performance. In short, there is a risk that the situation chews away at the learning mindset of the better students. A few bad apples can spoil the bin.

Consequence #3: The Quality of Faculty Teaching Suffers

In addition to a rise in academic dishonesty and a compromised education for all students, the quality of faculty teaching suffers. The fact is that good students bring out the best in faculty and vice versa. But that powerful feedback mechanism is short-circuited as soon as a noticeable number of students are neither qualified nor motivated to be there. 

Furthermore, as faculty typically target their delivery at the modal value of competence present in the class, they might lower that level to accommodate the unqualified students. That downward adjustment will affect everyone in the class. 

Also, by lowering the modal value, it moves away from the competence level of the best students in the class who, as a result, might no longer feel challenged. Faculty might also become demotivated, go on autopilot, and become oblivious to who is actually sitting in the class. As teaching has to come from the heart to be effective, this might spark a downward spiral in the quality of delivery.

Consequence #4: Trust in Education and Educational Institutions is Undermined

In sum, the presence of unqualified students can have consequences that negatively affect the education of all and quickly put the integrity of education (and that of the institutions providing it) at risk. Most of my students did graduate despite my concerns about the qualifications of some of them, and it underscores that risk and could further undermine the trust in education and in the institutions providing it.

Why Educational Institutions Admit Unqualified Students, Even When It Results in Negative Outcomes

If we are to have any hope of addressing these issues, we must look at why unqualified students are admitted in the first place. Taking a step back to reflect on how the situations I observed might have come about, it appears that there are dynamics at play that could easily give rise to it and that should raise a warning flag. 

These dynamics operate on both the supply side (parents) and the demand side (educational institutions): both can quickly lead to a situation where unqualified candidates might join the student population, resulting in the consequences just described. 

How Parents Contribute to the Admittance of Unqualified Students

On the supply side, parents feed the demand for college education. We have created a society where many parents believe that they have failed as parents if their kids do not make it to college. This is wrong. College (and university in general) requires an intellectual ability that not all children have. A lack of that ability does not imply a lack of any ability. 

With current parental beliefs, some will do anything to get their kids into college. These “bulldozer parents” move any obstacle out of their children’s way. This behavior is so wrong at many levels, not in the least in parental roles and responsibilities. From experience, let me also add that the bulldozer behavior by parents (and others in their sphere of influence) does not stop at admission. Let’s face it, if the children are not up to the task, their parents will have to clear their path all the way to graduation (and most likely beyond).

As educators, we must be aware of these bulldozer parents, and we must have a plan in place to address their attempts to get their children into the academic institution, whether the children are qualified or not.

How Educational Institutions Contribute to the Admittance of Unqualified Students

On the demand side, educational institutions share some of the blame. The prevailing business model that higher education has adopted is numbers-hungry, especially when tuition income is a significant source of revenues. 

Tweaking admission standards to serve short-term financial needs opens the door to what I observed and, as a result, potentially undermines the education of all. As such, educational institutions that are driven by their business model might quickly and easily put their reputation and that of their educational programs on the line. 

The Writing on the Wall

I believe it’s clear that, to remain viable, educational institutions must change the criteria by which they determine which students to admit. After all, it’s clear that, whether it’s a rise in academic dishonesty, a compromised education for all students, or the lowering of faculty teaching standards, the admittance of unqualified students affects us all. 

By becoming aware of the problem and then addressing our own individual roles in it, we can shift the paradigm and make educational institutions sustainable well into the future.

For more advice about how we can create better educational institutions, you can find Rough Diamonds on Amazon.

Dr. Wilfried R. Vanhonacker is an accomplished scholar, academic entrepreneur, and pedagogical innovator. He played a key role in the establishment of leading business schools in China (CEIBS) and Russia (MSM SKOLKOVO). He was the Founding Director of INSEAD’s PhD program in France and built the marketing department of the HKUST Business School of Hong Kong into a noted academic research department. He holds a PhD in management (marketing science) from Purdue University and a licentiate in econometrics from UFSIA. He divides his time between Shanghai and the French countryside.