The Happy Classroom: Grade Inflation Works

Thomas C. Reeves

It is no secret that grade inflation is common within contemporary academia. The extent of it, however, is known to comparatively few. One student of the topic, Stuart Rojstaczer of Duke University, recently published data showing a steady increase in undergraduate grades from 1991 to 2007. In public institutions the average GPA rose from 2.93 to 3.11. In private schools the average GPA climbed from 3.09 to 3.30.

This escalation appears more dramatic within a historical context. Rojstaczer observed that in the 1930s the average GPA at American colleges and universities was about 2.35; in the 1950s, it was about 2.52. In the turbulent 1960s, grades soared; they leveled off somewhat in the 1970s, and then began again to escalate in the 1980s. “The grade inflation that began in the 1980s has yet to end.” And this is true at all sorts and conditions of colleges and universities in both the sciences and humanities.[i]

At Brown University, two thirds of all letter grades given are now “A.” Eighty percent of the grades given at the University of Illinois are A’s and B’s. Fifty percent of students at Columbia University are on the Dean’s list. At Harvard, 50 percent of all grades were either A or A- last year (up from 22 percent in 1966), and 91 percent of seniors graduated with honors. At Stanford University, where until recently the F grade was banned, only 6 percent of student grades in one year were C’s.[ii]

Not long ago, reporters from the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel went through legal channels to acquire a database of grades given at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. UWM, a poor sister of the major state campus in Madison, is largely an open admissions institution on the undergraduate level. In the U.S. News rankings, it is relegated to Tier 4 (the bottom) among institutions offering the doctorate.[iii] Predictably, the published findings on UWM revealed a pattern of high grades, especially in the School of Education. But the inflation was elsewhere, as well. In a course called “Black Reality,” an adjunct instructor gave 65 percent of the class A’s. In a course in Brazilian jujitsu, the instructor gave all 74 students an A. [iv]

Some campus defenders argue that the superior quality of students today is responsible for the high grades. In fact, SAT scores of entering students have declined over the past 30 years, and fully a third of entering freshmen are enrolled in at least one remedial course in reading, writing, or mathematics.[v] A recent survey of more than 30,000 first year students revealed that nearly half were spending more hours drinking than they were studying.[vi] Researchers from the University of California, Irvine found that a third of students surveyed expected B’s just for attending class, and 40 percent said they deserved a B for completing the assigned reading.[vii]

In 2001 I retired after 40 years of college teaching. What hastened my departure was the fact that my students, on an open admissions campus, would quickly drop a survey course in American history if a single book, other than the textbook, was assigned. The juniors and seniors in advanced classes were similarly inclined. Moreover, students on all levels expected to pass the course on the grounds of attendance.[viii]

Other professors have had similar experiences. Not long ago, at UWM, an astronomy professor observed that up to half of one class “failed to show up most of the time.” A physics professor on that campus noted the many students who stopped attending and never took the final examination. “One would think this is a motivational issue,” he said.[ix] John Merrow, an expert on these matters, writes, “Students everywhere report that they average only 10-15 hours of academic work outside of class per week and are able to attain “B” or better grade-point averages.”[x]

The causes of grade inflation often appear complex. Some critics argue that students feel “entitled” to good grades, and that professors knuckle under, not wanting to rock the boat. There is certainly truth here, especially in light of the fact that many faculty members are themselves products of the turbulent 1960s and 1970s and know well how disruptive and even dangerous students can be when irritated. Professors at private institutions must be especially cautious in grading for fear of losing students and thus endangering their own departments, salaries, and even jobs.

Moreover, a great many students now leave high school for college without even a faint interest in acquiring more education. (Open admissions, affirmative action, and grade inflation in high schools, of course, make this more possible than ever.) Numerous polls show them primarily interested in acquiring a diploma that will be the key to good jobs and high pay. Obtaining a degree with the least possible effort is a common goal. 

Most academics understand this much published fact, and the result has been a sweeping addition of new job-oriented and sometimes nonsensical courses to catalogues and the removal of meaningful breadth of knowledge requirements. The results are predictable. In 2005, for example, a study by the National Center for Education Statistics reported that “Only 31 percent of college graduates can read a complex book and extrapolate from it.”[xi] It is now possible for college graduates to know little or nothing of world history, foreign languages, science, religion, literature, and the fine arts. Faculty members give final examinations in individual courses but almost unanimously fail to require graduation tests. Their reluctance is no doubt warranted.

The media, of course, also play a role. The brainless offal dished out to generations of Americans on television, for example, has denied untold millions the opportunity to see the life of the mind in action and glory in the finest achievements of Western civilization. Shrill, superficial, and predictable television and radio stars of both the Right and Left—not to mention the smarmy and giggling news readers—set the standards for public thought and discussion at rock bottom. Why, in a nation enamored with Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck, Chris Matthews, and Don Imus should students spend more time with books than with video games, especially if is easy to pass a course? Do young people turn to the Internet’s “Pick-a-Prof” and “CampusBuddy” in search of faculty members known for rigorous standards and tough grading? That’s a silly question.

On many campuses, moreover, student evaluations can make or break a professor’s promotion and salary. This has often been mentioned as a cause for high grades, for what better way to win popularity with students? Such popularity is especially vital for faculty on the majority of campuses that require little or no scholarly publication.[xii]

Then too, contemporary college and university faculties, especially in the humanities, are overwhelmingly on the Left, politically and culturally. These politically correct professors routinely see the classroom as an opportunity to win converts to pacifism, socialism, feminism, moral relativism, and an assortment of racial theories. One wonders how often intellectual diversity and tough classroom standards are part of this world view. Detailed studies are needed to dispel the cynicism of some of us who have read major books on the subject by conservatives Roger Kimball, Dinesh D’Sousa, and David Horowitz and have watched leftist faculty in action for decades. Professor Harvey Mansfield at Harvard University believes that many faculty members often give inflated grades to minorities and others in accord with their own ideological beliefs.[xiii]  Spend some time with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) website to examine the lack of objectivity on display at a wide assortment of campuses.[xiv] We need to know more about the relationship between faculty preaching and academic standards.

Campus administrators are unlikely to launch such a study. They are almost unanimously politically correct themselves and are eager to avoid controversy. Imagine a chancellor or president giving a graduation address that condemns professors on campus for their overly generous grading. It simply will not happen. Indeed, many administrators may quietly lobby for even lower classroom standards and higher grades. A UWM senior told a reporter recently of a tough grader, “I think he is maybe more rigorous than other professors on campus. I have a feeling at UWM there’s a push to go easy on people, generally speaking. I think [the professor] is probably—he does not like any pressure from administration.”[xv] Such music is not strange to the ears of many veteran faculty members.

Politicians often express concern about the quality of pre-college programs (e.g. No Child Left Behind), but there is little incentive for them to probe the quiet scandal going on almost everywhere in higher education.[xvi] A few conservatives express concern over campus costs, but the deeper issues of course content and grading go unexplored all across the political spectrum. Perhaps the politicos feel unqualified to wade in the waters of academia; perhaps too they see no reason to ask painful questions of an educational process that seems to make everyone happy.

Grade inflation continues because, on the whole, it works. It is in the best interests of students, faculty, and administrators.[xvii] Of course, there are always professors who uphold their academic standards and grade honestly and remain popular, at least in the better schools. But an individual professor’s conscience, like his reason, can be easily swayed when faced with the demands of self-interest. Leftist ideology no doubt eases the pain. 

The path of least resistance is to give everyone an A or a B in a class that demands little or no individual study and thought. The fruits of such a concession damage further the knowledge, wisdom, aesthetic sense, and basic competence of our disintegrating culture. The greatest losers are the students, especially those who breezed through college with high grades and remember their late adolescence largely as an endless series of beer parties. 

 


 

[i] See the update of March 10, 2009 at www.gradeinflation.com. Rojstaczer has data from over 180 campuses with a combined enrollment of over two million undergraduate students.

[ii] John Merrow, “Grade Inflation: It’s Not Just an Issue for the Ivy League,” www.carnegiefoundation.org/perspectives/sub.asp?key=245.foundation for the Advancement of Teaching; Stuart Rojstaczer, “Most College Kids Spend More Time Drinking Than Studying. And They Still Get Mostly A’s,” in Christian Science Monitor, March 24, 2009,online at WWW.csmonitor.com/2009/0324/p09s02-coop.htm; “Grade Inflation Article,” Minnesota State University Mankato, www.mnsu.edu/cet/teachingresources/articles/gradeinflation.html.

[iii] UWM is one of only three state supported campuses in Tier 4, the other two being U.W. Parkside, in Kenosha County, and U.W. Superior.

[iv] Erica Perez and Ben Poston, “Grade Records Show the Highs, Lows Among UWM Teachers, Courses.” www.jsonline.com/news/education/42508077.html.

[v] Merrow, “Grade Inflation: It’s Not Just an Issue for the Ivy League,”

[vi] Rojstaczer, “Most College Kids Spend More Time Drinking Than Studying.”

[vii] Max Roosevelt, “Student Expectations Seen as Causing Grade Disputes,” New York Times, February 18, 2009, online at www.nytimes.com/ 2009/02/18/education/18college.html.

[viii] See Thomas C. Reeves, “The Classroom Game,” 14 (Spring, 2001), 21-30.

[ix] Perez and Poston, “Grade Records Show the Highs, Lows, Among UWM Teachers, Courses.”

[x] Merrow, “Grade Inflation: It’s Not Just an Issue for the Ivy League.”

[xi] Quoted in Jeremiah Reedy, “Cultural Literacy for College Students,” Academic Questions, 20 (Winter 2006-07), 32.

[xii] This matter deserves much more scholarly attention. “Grade Inflation Article, University of Minnesota, Mankato.

[xiii] Mansfield gives two classroom grades, an official inflated one and an unofficial grade Mansfield believes the students actually deserve. See Harvey Mansfield, “Grade Inflation: It’s Time to Fact the Facts, Chronicle of Higher Education, April 6, 2001, available online at http:/chronicle.com/free/v47/i30/3060241.htm.

[xiv] See www.thefire.org.

[xv] Perez and Poston, “Grade Records Show the Highs, Lows, Among UWM Teachers, Courses.”

[xvi] See Thomas C. Reeves, “the Spellings Report: An Inadequate Fix,” Academic Questions, 20 (Winter 2006-07), 56-60.

[xvii] For two recent additions to the literature, see Valen E. Johnson, Grade Inflation: A Crisis in College Education (Springer Publishers, 2003), and Lester H. Hunt (ed.), Grade Inflation: Academic Standards in Higher Education (State University of New York Press, 2008). Both books have received little attention.

 

Prof. Reeves is the author and editor of a dozen books and lives in the countryside not far from Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

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