A recent article in the Chicago Tribune (here) recounted the difficulty that many seemingly excellent high school students (judging by their GPAs) encounter when they get to college.
The upshot of the piece is that grade inflation, especially at lower-performing schools as measured by standardized tests, is leading large numbers of high school graduates from lower socio-economic backgrounds to form a mistaken view of their own relative intellectual attainments, and thus to suffer from unrealistic expectations about the level of difficulty of the work that awaits them in college.
A cynic might observe that the dark clouds swirling around this report conceal a silver lining: If college work is that hard for so many top high-school graduates, it must mean that grade inflation at the college level is not as bad as we’ve been hearing!
And yet, anyone with any first-hand experience of American colleges over the pat 40 years knows very well that grade inflation is a reality.
Now, it is true that some liberal commentators deny that it is real, pointing to similar complaints that were already being made over a century ago (see here). Then, rather inconsistently, they say that even if grade inflation is real, it’s a good thing, because poor grades are damaging to students’ self esteem!
But, of course, it does not follow from the fact that complaints about grade inflation have been around for a long time that they are not justified. It could be—and we believe a strong case could be made—that general academic standards have been declining for a long while.
At any rate, recent statistical analyses (here) also support what many of us know from first-hand experience: in America’s colleges and universities—from the Ivy League to the community-college level—A’s are routinely being handed out today for work that 40 years ago would have earned the student a B or even a C.
But if that is a reality, then what is the reason for it?
The main reason for grade inflation, in our judgment, is the shift in power between students and professors that was inaugurated in the 1970s and has gradually increased over the years.
One cause of this shift was the institution of teacher evaluations and the important impact that these now have on the careers of the highly vulnerable, non-tenured lower echelons of the faculty: graduate teaching assistants, instructors, adjuncts, and the like.
Knowing that good teacher evaluations are crucial to his job prospects, and knowing too that good evaluations are closely correlated with high grades, it is the rare graduate assistant or adjunct who is going to be brave enough to hand out very many C’s or D’s (not to mention F’s, which are now almost unheard of), no matter how well deserved.
Now, all of this could easily be put right by college administrators, were there the will to do so. Indeed, at Princeton they did institute an anti-inflation policy a few years back. The policy set as a target that A’s should constitute no more than 35% of grades for regular undergraduate classwork, and it appears to be having a real impact on reversing decades of grade inflation at that eminent university (see here).
However, we believe there is another, deeper cause of the shift in power relations between students and professors—one that has more to do with the culture at large, and that will not be so easily remedied. This is the creeping commodification of higher education in America, and the concomitant adoption of a consumerist attitude toward a college degree among the population at large.
If “selling” a university education is basically no different from selling a car, then obviously universities must give students and their parents—who are the “consumers”—what they want. And what they want are all A’s on their report cards.
Since the customer is always right, and since he can always take his business elsewhere, university administrators must coddle students or risk undermining their bottom line. Given the incentives that operate today within colleges and universities, no one should be surprised that grade inflation is the result.
Finally, to return to those high-school “A students” who are unprepared to do college work of even the modest degree of difficulty expected of them today, we can only observe that those boys and girls are being seriously short-changed—above all, by not being challenged to develop themselves to their full potential.
Other implications—for example, for America’s long-term standing among nations—we leave for the political pundits to ponder.