A’s for Everyone: How Grade Inflation Is Wrecking Higher Education
A report card of straight A’s might make parents paying a pretty penny for their child’s college education feel a diploma is worth the financial sacrifice. But according to the most comprehensive analysis ever of grade inflation in higher education in the United States, nowadays even the most average students are likely to be given A’s. Although all those A’s might make American students feel—or appear—smart, in the long run, it could make them less employable compared with their legitmately high-achieving peers around the world.
“It’s likely that American competitiveness will suffer if we continue to water down undergraduate education,” former Duke University geology professor Stuart Rojstaczer wrote in an email to TakePart about Grade Inflation, the report released Tuesday on his website.
Rojstaczer has become known as “Mr. Grade Inflation” since he first criticized the uptick in grades in an op-ed published in The Washington Post in 2003. Since then he has worked with Chris Healy, a computer science professor at Furman University, to produce several analyses of grade inflation. For their 2016 update, they crunched 70 years of data obtained from a variety of sources, including administrators and internal university documents, for roughly 400 schools. The researchers found that whether a school is public, private, selective, or open to whomever walks through the door, the most common grade given is an A.
“America’s professors and college administrators have been promoting a fiction that college students routinely study long and hard, participate actively in class, write impressive papers, and ace their tests. The truth is that, for a variety of reasons, professors today commonly make no distinctions between mediocre and excellent student performance and are doing so from Harvard to CSU–San Bernardino,” Rojstaczer wrote in the report.
Indeed, the report reveals that in the 1940s and ’50s, it was normal for students to earn C’s, even at Ivy League institutions. But that began to change during the Vietnam era, when professors began giving male students higher grades to keep them from flunking out, which would make them eligible for the draft.
Fast-forward to the past 30 years, which Rojstaczer calls the “consumer era,” when students have been paying sky-high tuition and racking up significant student loan debt. As a result, professors are under pressure to give higher grades, according to Rojstaczer. Another factor that doesn’t help: Mandatory student evaluations of college professors are commonly used to determine whether an instructor will be rehired or granted tenure. “When you treat a student as a customer, the customer is, of course, always right. If a student and parent of that student want a high grade, you give it to them,” he wrote in the report.
Although there’s an increased reliance on lower-paid adjunct faculty at four-year universities, that probably isn’t a key driver of grade inflation, according to Rojstaczer. “The influence of adjuncts is probably minor at best. Everybody, tenure track or not, inflates,” he wrote to TakePart.
Rojstaczer also found that A’s are as common at community colleges as at four-year institutions, but the data revealed a slight drop in how high marks were doled out at two-year schools during the 2000s. It might be tempting to assume that this is because instructors at four-year schools are more focused on research and publishing, while instructors at community colleges may be explicitly focused on actual teaching. But Rojstaczer wrote to TakePart that that’s “probably not,” the case. “Liberal arts colleges have among the highest grades in the country, and they are instruction-focused as well,” he wrote.
Instead, he speculated in the report that since the cost of community college is comparatively lower than that of a four-year school, and students on average come from less well-off backgrounds, they may not feel as entitled to an A.
Given that a recent report found that only 14 percent of students enrolled at a community college end up transferring to a four-year institution within six years, the preparedness of high school students for the rigors of college-level coursework could also be a factor. “Perhaps no amount of consumerism can make up for a student population that is increasingly unprepared for college work or doesn’t show up,” Rojstaczer wrote in the report.
Individual schools have attempted to address grade inflation over the years. The report notes that Princeton University had a crackdown on grade inflation between 2004 and 2014, during which time A’s were no longer the most common grade handed out by professors. But once one college president critical of inflation leaves, other administrators, feeling the pressure from parents and students, get the ball rolling again.
According to “Princeton’s new president, Christopher Eisgruber, the grading policy was ‘a considerable source of stress for many students, parents, alumni, and faculty members,’ ” Rojstaczer wrote in his report. As a result, as of 2014, an A was once again the most common grade given at the elite school.
Instead, Rojstaczer suggested that schools should be required to publish their average grades online. “They might just be embarrassed enough to stop raising their grades,” he wrote to TakePart in an email. “I’d be happy to see a public, federal database on college grading. Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”