Grade Inflation All the Way Up

Among the many troubling findings cited by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa in Academically Adrift is this remarkable note on grade inflation:
 
—–55 percent of college students have a B+ grade average or higher (3.3 and higher)
—–85 percent of college students have a B- grade average or higher (2.7 and higher)
 
Those numbers demonstrate what most everybody has known for a long, long time.  The old grading system running from A to F is virtually meaningless.  Today, except for the small fraction of low outliers and dropouts, the only meaningful discriminations happen at the high end.  Are you a B+ student or an A- student?  The difference may come down to only two-tenths of a point, but generally that’s the best the scale can do.
 
Everybody knows it, especially when you get outside Organic Chemistry, Advanced Calculus, and other science/med school prerequisites which have a forthright weeding-out purpose.  In a humanities class, a “C” counts as a lost case.  I am just as guilty of the practice as most, but at least my colleagues and I usually admit it.

In the Chronicle of Higher Education's recent survey of college presidents , though, the acknowledgment dwindles.  As you can see from the chart included in the story, when asked whether the teachers at their institution grade students “too leniently,” “too stringently,” or “about right,” presidents came up well short of recognizing grade inflation in their midst.  Here are the numbers:

——At 4-year private institutions, 66 percent said “about right,” 33 percent, “too leniently,” and 0 percent, too stringently.
—–At 4-year public institutions, 75 percent said “about right,” 24 percent “too leniently,” and 0 percent “too stringently.”
—–At 2-year schools, the numbers were 77 percent, 21 percent, and 1 percent.

The Chronicle played up the recognition of leniency, but the numbers don’t come close to being accurate.  Leniency extends a lot farther than to 33 percent of private 4-year schools and 24 percent of public 4-year schools.  

The problem looks even worse when you add another finding to the mix.  On average, college students study only 12 hours per week.  Furthermore, in Arum and Roksa’s study, “Fifty percent of students in [the] sample reported that they had not taken a single course during the prior semester that required more than twenty pages of writing.”

The customary workload puts the leniency factor into sharper relief.  At the same time, it sets the presidents’ responses (apart from those 30 or so percent) in the category of puffery, not truth-telling.  They know that if they started talking about their teacher’s being too easy, they might signal a coming rise in rigor on campus.  Juniors and seniors leading tours of prospective applicants and their parents around the quad would have to say things like, “Yes, we’ve been a bit too relaxed with part cohorts, but in the next five years, things at this university are going to get a lot tougher.”  

The dilemma is obvious.  Raise the rigor and word gets around.  Applications go down and so do retention rates.  Two antagonistic forces are at work: one, the reputation of a school for challenging academics, and two, the reputation of a school as a cool place to go.  That tension won’t end any time soon, but what we’ve seen in the last 30 years is a imbalance well toward the latter.

Mark Bauerlein

Mark Bauerlein is a professor emeritus of English at Emory University and an editor at First Things, where he hosts a podcast twice a week. He is the author of five books, including The Dumbest Generation Grows Up: From Stupefied Youth to Dangerous Adults.

9 thoughts on “Grade Inflation All the Way Up

  1. An added complication for grade inflation is that grades are translated to grade points, which are averaged into a meaningless number.
    Over the years, I’ve come to the practice of giving grades A, B. C and F (no D) with + and -.
    This is because there is indeed a gap between failing (F) and exhibiting some small degree of mastery. The median grade in my lower division courses tends to be about B-. About 5 to 10 percent of a section fails — it can vary higher.
    Roughly things work out as
    A 20%
    B 30%
    C 40%
    F 10%
    This still provides plenty of discrimination, I think.
    A student who earns a C- from me tends to be pretty satisfied with it. But this is partly because I work hard to let folks know what I expect and that what I expect is challenging but reasonable.
    Very often, I find myself admiring the student who struggled to earn a C+ more than any one else in the class. I make sure that such students know this — sometimes with emails after the grades are submitted.

  2. Sorry, Professor Bauerlein, but your “rationale” is simply an old rationalization for a morally indefensible action: I must do it because everyone else is doing it–which, of course, is what everyone else is telling himself.
    Usually omitted in condemnations of grade inflation is any mention of the harm it does to students. At Brooklyn College, I was told not only to pass everyone, but to refrain from telling a student she needed to improve her skills or expand her knowledge, even when, as so often, she was ludicrously unprepared for college work.
    But thirty years of experience prompted me to speak up. Indeed, I felt it would be criminally dishonest to be silent.
    Of course, a student will be enraged by the first honest grade he receives. At Brooklyn College, I heard all too often, “None of my other teachers ever gave me such a low grade.” But dealing with such a reaction was part of my job, just like giving the honest grade in the first place.
    A low grade on the student’s record may cast doubt on the high grades that predominate, setting that record straight: the student is unprepared for college.
    A college teacher who does these days what was done routinely in days past is a new kind of conscientious objector. Conscientious objectors don’t ever fare well, but, despite the steep price I had to pay professionally, psychologically, and financially, I’m glad I did my job to the letter, as it were.
    I sometimes imagine a Nuremberg-like reckoning after the total collapse of higher education. Having followed neither orders nor the herd, I might finally receive some justice.
    Frederick K Lang
    Professor Emeritus of English
    Brooklyn College,
    City University of New York

  3. Over the last 31 years, my small “liberal arts” college has gradually become a community college, although it still maintains the fiction that it is liberal arts. The average student is one who would never have attended college, even 15 years ago. In the last 15-20 years, while the grade inflation at the college has increased students’ average GPA, my grades have decreased remarkably. In most undergraduate and graduate classes, my average GPA ranges from 2.0-2.4, even after 2-4 students have dropped the classes because they were failing. In a recent graduate class, 10 of 18 students failed the course. Although that class was an outlier, I have many classes in which there are no grades of A, 2-3 grades of B, 3-4 grades of D and F with the remaining grades being Cs. Thus far, no one from the administration has approached me directly to admonish me. BUT, what my department administrators do is this: they allow the students who fail my courses to take the course online from Phoenix University. I guess it’s a win-win-win for everyone but me: The college still keeps the student and gets the money for the rest of his/her program, my dept. chair doesn’t have to admonish me directly, and the students gets his/her A for the course. Now that word has gotten out about Phoenix, some students will enroll for my course, attend the first 2-3 classes, fail the first two quizzes (that they had no intention of passing), drop the course because they are “failing,”, and then have their advisor appeal to my chair to take the course online at Phoenix.
    I have 5 more years to go. Unlike Dr. Lang, I will likely be permitted to survive at the school for this period of time. But, the academic fraud will continue.

  4. I teach an English course called “Academic Reading and Critical Thinking.” We spent several weeks this semester reading essays on education—among them, a piece by Arum & Roksa and one of yours, MB.
    My students were willing to acknowledge that college courses rarely demand much of their time, but ANY time seemed to be of great inconvenience to them. An affront, they seemed to feel, to their all-important personal lives.
    More than 50 percent of my students dropped, disappeared, or ultimately failed the course. Very few earned As. This does not make me a popular instructor (and I’m fortunate to have support of my dean), but I am fighting the good fight against grade inflation.
    Your comrade,
    Lori Isbell
    Yavapai College
    Prescott, Arizona

  5. Mark,
    I have been following your work for a while, and I am glad you contribute so much to the subject.
    Indeed these statistics are reason to be concerned. But it’s like a dirty little secret and everyone is going along with it. Alas, since a College Education is an experienced good no one really knows the value of it until after it has already been received. (more on the cost topic here: http://j.mp/m5jYKD)
    We put a lot of trust in professors to properly grade people, but I noticed during my college years that grades were not necessarily reflective of true individual ability or potential. They were more like a poor snapshot Polaroids.
    Certain professors were not willing to pass judgment on a student as being a “Failure” so the C grade was an easy way to deal with it.
    It’s a disservice when you look at the poor quality of writing most former students now posses. They need to be able to read and write effectively, but most importantly they need to adopt critical thinking, a skill that usually develops along side the process of reading and writing.
    Giving out wishy-washy grades sends mixed signals to impressionable students who have a false sense of confidence when leaving college.
    And I agree on your point about getting colleagues on board. If not, the teacher that is actually doing their job providing well grounded grading methodologies without a “fear of failure” will be ostracized by the student body as a “hard” teacher and avoided at all costs.
    Academic teachers could learn a lot from coaches and trainers, because when they do a poor job, someone on the field can get hurt bad. Can’t we just train these students to do better and honestly tell them when they are not?

  6. “Today, except for the small fraction of low outliers and dropouts, the only meaningful discriminations happen at the high end.”
    But that’s an important exception. My university requires a C average to graduate, and I believe other universities have a similar requirement. Therefore, students who fall solidly below that threshold end up withdrawing, and are no longer counted in the averages. This selective withdrawal helps explain the skewed distribution: only 15% of students have a GPA below 2.7, and I would guess that most of these fall into the C or C+ range, with a couple D+/C- students desperately trying to pull themselves over the threshold.
    I’m not denying the existence of grade inflation, but it’s important to realize that certain types of rigor will increase average grades as well.

  7. Here’s my rationale, Prof. Lang. For me to give students a grade out of a scale significantly lower than that of colleagues everywhere else becomes a stigma on the students’ record. Unless an entire department commits to lowering the inflation, a single professor must match the general scale. For what it’s worth, I tried to get a department-wide grading curve in pace many years ago.

  8. Bauerlein’s commentary is both encouraging and infuriating. He’s right to give the problem of grade inflation, which is crippling higher education, further exposure, but his cavalier reference to his own complicity (“In a humanities class, a ‘C’ counts as a lost case. I am just as guilty of the practice as most, but at least my colleagues and I usually admit it”) is extremely offensive.
    Perhaps I’m overly sensitive, having been persecuted and then forced into early retirement because of my refusal to give Cs to subliterate students–who in some of my courses were in the majority–while my colleagues behaved like Bauerlein and his colleagues.
    Teachers who treat C as the new F are committing academic fraud. Fear and trembling over complaints from students and administrators is no excuse for betraying one’s profession. Grade inflation is the result of simple cowardice.
    Frederick K. Lang
    Professor Emeritus of English
    Brooklyn College,
    City University of New York

  9. Bauerlein’s commentary is both encouraging and infuriating. He’s right to give the problem of grade inflation, which is crippling higher education, further exposure, but his cavalier reference to his own complicity (“In a humanities class, a ‘C’ counts as a lost case. I am just as guilty of the practice as most, but at least my colleagues and I usually admit it”) is extremely offensive.
    Perhaps I’m overly sensitive, having been persecuted and then forced into early retirement because of my refusal to give Cs to subliterate students–who in some of my courses were in the majority–while my colleagues behaved like Bauerlein and his colleagues.
    Teachers who treat C as the new F are committing academic fraud. Fear and trembling over complaints from students and administrators is no excuse for betraying one’s profession. Grade inflation is the result of simple cowardice.
    Frederick K. Lang
    Professor Emeritus of English
    Brooklyn College,
    City University of New York

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