This week the New York Times reported on the results of a comprehensive study of grade inflation by Christopher Healy and Stuart Rojstaczer, who have long studied the subject. On the one hand, the report confirms what many academics, especially those in the liberal arts, have long been aware of: grades have been creeping upward for decades now. Interestingly, the new research shows that this has been accomplished almost exclusively through a massive swell of 'A' grades. The percentage of B's "earned" by American college students has not changed significantly since the 1940s, but the percentage of 'D' and 'C grades have dropped precipitously as 'A's have taken their place. Personally this was surprising. As a teacher myself, I remain stingy with A's, but I do award far more B's than I did as a young teacher. I had assumed that it was B's, not A's, that were responsible for grade inflation. Instead, according to Healy and Rojstaczer's research, about 43% of all letter grades received by students are now 'A's.
and Healy state that this trend really got going in the 1960s when, they
argue, college professors did not want to flunk students out of the university
and into the Vietnam War. In the present day, they note that institutional
factors heavily affect this trend. Private institutions have fueled grade
inflation to a much greater degree than public institutions, and liberal arts
colleges similarly have outpaced science and engineering programs in this
regard. The researchers attribute these developments to an increasingly consumerist
model of education. The irony, at least to me, is that private liberal arts
colleges, the worst grade-inflation offenders according to this research, ideally
are supposed to be immune to this consumerist approach. Private endowments are
supposed to ensure institutional independence and student access to top
researchers, teachers, and materials. The liberal arts ethos is supposed to
encourage learning for self-fulfillment and enlightenment, not merely as a
springboard to post-collegiate success and wealth. These institutions are
supposed to cultivate a culture in which students do not look at education as a
mere commodity or capital to be invested in future employment. Yet, these are
the institutions that have most coddled students with inflated grades and, if
Rojstaczer and Healy are correct, most encouraged their students to view
higher education unapologetically as a marketplace where they can get what they
want simply through demanding, rather than earning it.
If we assume
that this "consumerist approach" is a significant cause of grade inflation what
can we expect for the future of higher education? As numerous states slash
education expenditures in a desperate bid to balance budgets, public
institutions are being forced onto an increasingly private footing. One would
expect to see grade inflation accelerate at these institutions, too, as they
try to recoup lost revenues by attracting more students, perhaps through creating
popular new majors (edutainment), loosening general education requirements, and
the like. Teachers will feel this pressure as well. As budgets get slashed,
departments tend to fight to keep their slice of the pie by pointing to the
number of students they serve. In order to continue to attract large numbers of
students to a particular department or major, it is likely that teachers will
feel pressure (not necessarily from the department itself) to lighten the
rigors of their classes and grade more leniently.
Since this trend has become entrenched over the last 40-50 years, it would appear that there is no quick fix for it. Aside from simply trying to roll back grades, I'm not sure what would be a feasible solution to this continuing escalation. Have we broken the letter grade model? Should we try to pioneer a new grading system? Will institutions want to begin requiring standardized testing of graduates to assess what they've truly learned?
Amherst College students, presumably earning their grades after the Civil War
All of this speculation presumes, however, that there is a consensus that grade inflation itself is detrimental, not just to individual students and professors, but to the entire system of higher education. While I think most students, educators and administrators would agree that grade inflation is harmful in the abstract, it might well be much more difficult to get them to agree that it has had a deleterious, practical impact. Indeed, if the consumerist model of higher education is as predominant as the researchers suggest, then the continuing flow of "customers" would suggest that there is no problem. According to the Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics, the rate of enrollment in higher education has been accelerating of late. While enrollments increased by about 14% from 1987-1997, they increased by 26% from 1997-2007. This continues a trend in the rate of increase in higher education enrollment since the 1970s. Continued projections of increasing enrollment raises the question of whether or not most students, educators, and administrators will even agree that there is a real problem here requiring a real solution. If contemporary higher education is a purchase and not a process then we might well expect grade inflation to continue until students, employers, graduate schools, and others realize that the item purchased is defective. Personally, I am not so pessimistic as to believe that our education system has been wholly undermined by a marketplace ethos. It remains to be seen, however, how colleges and universities can reverse this trend of pampering students.