Higher Ed in the News: 3/1

Photo by Max Böttinger on Unsplash.

This week: an absolutely stunning scandal involving essay mills and hacking of university websites, then a look at teacher training programs and their impact on diversity.


Over 100 universities were hacked to help students cheat

Domains at MIT, Stanford, Columbia, UCLA and over 100 other schools were hacked by companies that help students cheat. The schools’ websites were found to be presenting information from outside sources that offered essays, homework guides, and other illegal materials.

“What [researchers] uncovered was a coordinated, planned pattern of hacking, information manipulation and other attacks by dark academic cheating companies that embedded their materials in top-level domains at schools of every variety,” Derek Newton wrote for Forbes.

The researchers were Jim Ridolfo from the University of Kentucky and William Hart-Davidson from Michigan State University. They discovered the hacks by searching university websites for content or code relating to a set of well-known “essay mills,” as Newton called them. They found a number of university websites compromised by troubling links or bugs added to official school pages.

The way the subversion would work is these companies would place links to their own content on university pages for academic or personal support. The companies were explicitly targeting vulnerable students—in one instance, the resource page for students with dyslexia at the University of Michigan was the target of this ploy. In other instances, a live chat bug appeared on top of university sites, offering students direct access to external “homework help” from the page of an academic support center. 

Ridolfo and Hart-Davidson also noted that the scope of this issue is likely much larger than what they found. They only searched for content from 14 companies, when there are hundreds, and they only looked for writing-related cheating. 

Lack of Exclusivity Keeps Teacher Training Programs From Attaining Diversity

According to findings by the National Council for Teacher Quality (NCTQ), teacher training programs implemented to attract a more diverse demographic of applicants are not achieving desired results. The NCTQ study, which tracked selectivity and diversity measures at 1,256 elementary teacher preparation programs and is analyzed in a recent Inside Higher Ed article, revealed that only 200 or so programs were deemed both selective and diverse based on the demographics and GPA/standardized test results in their local area. 

Only a third of the programs achieved high diversity ratings, indicating a major disconnect between program goals and reality. While some positive trends have been identified by the study—two thirds of programs reflected a “more diverse enrollment than their state teacher workforce”—the underwhelming results and discovery that only 7% of programs met their own institution’s standards for diversity indicate that higher education is still far from overcoming this obstacle.

The results are said to be a reflection on measures backed by then-President Obama starting in 2016 that supported a long-standing belief that “college teacher training programs had to be lowered in order to draw in people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds.” This led to many programs eliminating skills tests as prerequisites, with the goal of attracting more diverse candidates. Despite its intent to increase the diversity of enrollees in these institutions, lowering the bar to entry seems to have hurt the program and they remain generally unappealing to candidates of color. 

NCTQ leaders believe this is because programs with low standards for enrollment fail to attract top candidates of any race due to their lack of exclusivity, thus spurring potential candidates of color to go elsewhere.