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Why Students Should Fear Grade Inflation

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

Students resent getting "Cs"; yet administration decries grade inflation. Faculty are caught between satisfying their "customers" and keeping their "bosses" happy in a system where student satisfaction with the professor is often figured into reappointment, promotion, and tenure decisions. It seems to everyone involved in higher education that there is a lot riding on the undergraduate GPA. Wouldn’t students be better served by having realistic reflections of their effort and achievement? One solution to the grade inflation epidemic is for students to stop feeling entitled to an "A." If student expectations can be curbed, then the entire problem would be solved and students, the faculty teaching them, and society as a whole would benefit. Here’s how.

The Grade Inflation Problem
When I was an undergraduate, I struggled for the first couple of years of my education to pull my GPA over 3.0 (that’s a "B") . That seemed fairly average 20 years ago, but I had to work hard for that grade. Times have changed quite a bit since then. In a July, 2011 article for the New York Times, Catherine Rampell references a study by Stuart Rojstaczer and Christopher Healy that chronicles the dramatic rise in "As" since the 1940s and the precipitous decline in "Cs."


(http://economix.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/07/14/the-history-of-college-grade-inflation/)

As you can see, according to the data gathered by Rojstaczer and Healy, the percentage of undergraduate students receiving "As" in college has risen from 15% in 1940 to 43% in 2008. That’s 12% higher than  it was in 1988 when I was about to enter college. Overall, the researchers report that "As" and "Bs" now represent 73% of all grades in public universities and 86% in private colleges. This clearly represents a significant change, but what is really so bad about more students doing well in higher education?

The Detrimental Effects of Grade Inflation
Giving people an "A" instead of a "B" or a "B" instead of a "C" seems so harmless. No one is hurt, students are happier, and the professor’s job is arguably a bit easier. So, why all the fuss over grade inflation? In fact, grade inflation hurts everyone, from the individual students involved, to society as a whole.

  • For students, grade inflation means never knowing where they really stand and not having to work as hard as possible to get there. This is a problem with our culture that demands instant gratification. Students want to have immediate positive feedback regardless of the reality of the work they are doing and the actual length of the process that they are engaged in. Education is a lifelong process that cannot be evaluated in the moment, so that easy "A" that was not worked hard for does not establish the foundation for a lifetime of very necessary growth and learning.  There can be little satisfaction in being given a grade that you have not worked hard to earn. Subsequently, having things come to easy does not build the kind of fortitude and ambition that are needed in a challenging, rapidly shifting global economy.
  • For faculty, grade inflation means not pushing students as hard or as far as they might and being beholden to those students for approval in an unending cycle of upward spiraling grades. This is the education insider argument: that if faculty are employees and students are customers who have paid for their education (and thus their grades) there is an issue with "customer satisfaction." There is no leverage for professors to push students in this model. In fact, when student evaluations of faculty members become part of the reappointment process, the power dynamic shifts in such a way that grade inflation is a natural outcome. In this scenario –arguably the one currently in play – faculty are unable to drive students as hard as they otherwise would because their careers are at stake if they don’t make their "customers" happy.
  • For higher education, grade inflation equates to a devaluing of the product they offer. The objective of education is learning. Paying tens of thousands of dollars every year means that you should be getting a lot of learning for your money. Scholarship is also hard work for both the student and the faculty members. If either party does not, or cannot, buy into that for whatever reason – a feeling of entitlement or fear of reprimand – then the students are not receiving the maximum value for their investment. As student grades rise and education becomes incrementally less rigorous, the effectiveness of a higher education is lessened. Realistically, this means that the worth of a college diploma is decreased. Graduates are not as well-prepared for the rigors of the work world, and business will see less and less value in hiring those with a college degree.
  • For society as a whole, grade inflation means that our college graduates are not as well-prepared as they could be – either in regards to specific skills and knowledge, or in terms of their willingness to work hard to accomplish a task. For everyday life this lack of intellectualism strikes at the very core of what America is supposed to be – educated and engaged citizens who are thoughtful about issues pertaining to society and critical of the process by which change happens. On a smaller scale, this contributes to the ever-increasing shortage of qualified workers ready to take on the most technologically advanced jobs that we have. Even if there were no shortage of students pursuing degrees in STEM areas, if graduates are unprepared for the positions they are expected to fill, they will be unable to keep these jobs, even if they are hired to do them.

What Happens if We Curb Grade Inflation?
Take a step back for a moment and think about what higher education and society would be like if grades were based on hard work, academic rigor, and were true reflections of a person’s accomplishments.

  • Student satisfaction would rise – Frankly, it is not as satisfying to attempt to do something that just isn’t that challenging. I like to fish, for example, and it wouldn’t be fun for very long if the fish just jumped out of the water into my net. Half of the enjoyment is in the intellectual and physical challenge of finding, luring, and landing a fish. Education is the same way. Students will develop more self-esteem and greater feelings of accomplishment if they have to work harder to achieve something. Ultimately this will lead to more well-adjusted and productive adults who are, in Jungian terms, self-actualized.
  • Faculty confidence and rigor would rise – In addition to student confidence rising, faculty confidence and, consequently, academic rigor would improve. Part of the reason for academic tenure is to free professors from outside pressures on their research and teaching. Making them beholden to student satisfaction is not only antithetical to this idea, but also works against their being able to push students as hard as they might. As an example from popular culture, consider The Biggest Loser. The trainers in that show are absolute drill sergeant/ jerks to the contestants they are working with. They know, and most contests quickly realize, that human beings need to be pushed hard to do difficult things. Grade inflation and the accompanying expectations rob faculty of the authority and confidence to be the taskmasters that many young people need in order to kick start their pursuit of lifelong learning.
  • Societal intellectualism and perseverance would rise – Finally, doing away with grade inflation would allow faculty members and their students to push and be pushed into developing lifelong habits of intellectual rigor that would make society better for everyone. Imagine the positive possibilities if everyone were used to thinking critically about the issues that affect us all. We could put a stop to political ineffectiveness and governmental policies and business practices that are not good for us, subsequent generations, or the environment.

A Simple Solution
This is a big issue, and one that has been worsening for decades without any apparent solution in sight. Like many problems that seem insurmountable, the best course of action is for a grass-roots movement for change. In this case, that means that students themselves must demand more academic rigor, not an easy "A." While I put little stock in sites like Rate My Professor, I think this is one case in which they might actually be useful. Students can start there and use the site to target faculty members that they should be taking classes from – those who receive frowny faces, or reviews that say they are hard, rigorous, mean, etc. These are not indicators of a bad teacher, but rather of one who is pushing students to the edge of their comfort zone. It is in these classes where the most learning will take place. Conversely, students should stay away from the easy teachers; they may not be pushing students as far as they could go. Students need to focus on the learning that is occurring rather than the grades that they are receiving, in order to get the maximum possible benefit from their education.

A second stage of this movement is for all higher education administration to drop the practice of using student evaluations for consideration in the reappointment and promotion process. For starters, students simply are not qualified to judge what they have learned from a PhD in any given area. Secondly, they are generally not emotionally mature enough to understand the impact of their evaluations or to objectively consider the real results of what they have experienced. Finally, the use of student evaluations for review of faculty creates a situation in which the professors who are the least rigorous (easiest) may receive artificially inflated evaluations, while those who are most challenging for students, may receive artificially low evaluation numbers.

Finally, faculty members need to maintain their academic rigor and push students as hard as possible. Every college class should be hard for every student. There is no teaching to the middle necessary in college as there is in high school. The highest expectations and standards should be set, and student’s grades should reflect the degree to which they meet those lofty goals. Faculty, in conjunction with students and administration, need to make "C’s" the standard of basic proficiency and "B’s" and "A’s" reflections of increasing mastery, not just a satisfactory performance.

If we can temper student expectations for high grades and make them appreciate the real value of the grades they are earning, not as indicators of something finished, but of something just begun. We will start heading down the right track to curb the grade inflation epidemic that is plaguing higher education.

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