The “Gentleman C” is becoming a thing of the past. According to a report from Teachers College Record , about 43 percent of students at more than 200 four-year colleges and universities receives A’s. In contrast, the amount of B’s awarded has remained constant but the number of C’s, D’s and F’s has shrunk, with only about 10 percent of grades awarded being D’s and F’s. Private colleges are the “biggest offenders” in the grade inflation department, with A ’s and B’s comprising 73 percent of all grades awarded at public schools, and 86 percent of all grades awarded at private schools.
Also, schools whose emphasis is science and engineering tend to be “stingier” with their A’s than liberal arts schools: Certainly, grades for subjects like mathematics and the natural sciences are more likely to be based on scores on tests and exams for which there are right and wrong answers, while grades for many humanities classes are often based primarily on students’ written work and the admittedly “fuzzy” criterion of “class participation.”
As the New York Times Economix blog points out, the study’s researchers, Stuart Rojstaczer and Christopher Healy (a former Duke geophysics professor and a computer science professor at Furman University, respectively), say the steep rise in A’s isn’t due to “higher quality” or better-prepared students. Rather, the upsurge is due to what you might call a rampantly consumerist attitude now entrenched in American higher education:
… the researchers argue that grade inflation began picking in the 1960s and 1970s probably because professors were reluctant to give students D’s and F’s. After all, poor grades could land young men in Vietnam.
They then attribute the rapid rise in grade inflation in the last couple of decades to a more “consumer-based approach” to education, which they say “has created both external and internal incentives for the faculty to grade more generously.” More generous grading can produce better instructor reviews, for example, and can help students be more competitive candidates for graduate schools and the job market.
The authors argue that grading standards may become even looser in the coming years, making it increasingly more difficult for graduate schools and employers to distinguish between excellent, good and mediocre students.
Another factor that could be behind grade inflation is that colleges and universities are employing increasing numbers of non-tenure track faculty, especially to teach “core” classes. Some of these faculty are full-time instructors (with benefits) at colleges, but others are adjuncts — “contract workers,” in essence — who may well teach a number of classes at a number of schools on any given week or day. Instructors in such positions may feel inclined, consciously or not, to give higher grades to increase their scores on evaluations (official and online), and therefore the possibility of getting rehired for another semester.
Rojstaczer and Healy note that grade inflation occurs the most at the most selective (i.e. Ivy League) schools, with potentially detrimental effects for the students:
It is likely that at many selective and highly selective schools, undergraduate GPAs are now so saturated at the high end that they have little use as a motivator of students and as an evaluation tool for graduate and professional schools and employers.
A number of colleges (including Princeton) have indeed issued guidelines about grading and faculty are informed that only a certain percentage of students is supposed to receive grades. Students have countered they could be unfairly penalized in applying for graduate schools and fellowships. For a real change to be made in rise of grade inflation, all, or most, schools would somehow have to get all their faculty on board to change their grading policies — something that would be about as easy to do as the proverbial herding of the cats.
My own school has not (yet) made too much about grade inflation. We are not one of those “highly selective schools.” I don’t know the figures for how many A’s, B’s, etc., get awarded at my college, but, have done a fair share of academic advising with many students over the years. While students who are in the college’s Honors Program do tend to be very watchful of their GPAs (and worried about taking classes that might lead to lower grades), plenty of students have academic records that aren’t exacty studded with A’s and B’s. Indeed, I’ve had times when it’s clear a student is capable of A-level work, but circumstances — family demands, part-time jobs, money woes, “life” — intrude and a lower grade has to be given.
In such cases, I do let the student know what their “real” grade should have been.
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