I recently stumbled across an old management classic: On the Folly of Rewarding A, While Hoping for B by Steven Kerr. It originally appeared in The Academy of Management Journal, Vol. 18, No. 4 (Dec., 1975), but an updated and ungated version is available here.
The title is a nice summary of the main point, but the section on universities caught my eye, especially two of the examples he gives. The first relates to how professors are rewarded.
Society hopes that professors will not neglect their teaching responsibilities but rewards them almost entirely for research and publications.
The second relates to students.
[G]rades themselves have become much more important for entrance to graduate school, successful employment, tuition refunds, and parental respect, than the knowledge or lack of knowledge they are supposed to signify.
It therefore should come as no surprise that we find fraternity files for examinations, term paper writing services, and plagiarism. Such activities constitute a personally rational response to a reward system which pays off for grades rather than knowledge.
I had been under the impression that these problems weren't as big back then as they are today. Of course, I didn't have much personal experience with higher ed in the last millennium (I was born after the article was written), but I'm curious as to what our readers think on this. Have these problems been getting better or worse?