Grade Inflation

Posted on December 2, 2018


Some University of Alabama entering freshman statistics are noticeably good, like at least 36 percent had a high school GPA of 4.0 or higher. That’s not a typo. In our traditional grading system, a 4.0 was the highest-grade point average you could attain. How could you have higher?

I think it was that statistic that got me to pondering on grades which have gone through an inflation in the past century to make them almost meaningless.

Until the era of the Vietnam War (1960s-early 1970s) C was the most common grade on college campuses. In the next fifty years grades rose dramatically, “As” becoming more common than Cs, Ds, or Fs. I was born too early.

“Why did this happen?” many have asked, including Stuart Rojstaczer, an American musician, writer, and geophysicist who taught, among other places, at Duke and has devoted much research and writing to the phenomenon of grade inflation.[1]

Hint number 1: “Faculty attitudes about teaching and grading underwent a profound shift that coincided with the Vietnam War.” Full time students were exempt from the draft. If they flunked out, it was a good chance they would end up as a soldier in Vietnam. Grades rose rapidly to keep students from the draft and so out of the war. It is not a happy story, having to do with avoiding the draft and leaving the poor and uneducated at the college level to do the fighting.

Rojstaczer suggests that a few professors “became convinced that grades were not a useful tool for motivation, were not a valid means of evaluation and created a harmful authoritarian environment for learning.”  That was bunk. More importantly, the rise of the civil rights movement empowered African Americans politically, but still left the younger ones at risk—unprepared to enter the mainstream of American higher education and survive.

Whatever the case, with the end of the Vietnam War grades returned to normal. Then, in the early 1980s grades began to rise again, “A’s” leading the trend, going up about five or six percentage points per decade. Again, what was happening here?

Rojstaczer explains it this way. “During that time … a new ethos had developed among college leaders.  Students were no longer thought of as acolytes searching for knowledge.  Instead they were customers.  Phrases like “success rates” began to become buzz phrases among academic administrators.”

A former university chancellor from the University of Wisconsin, David Ward, summed up this change in 2010: “That philosophy (the old approach to teaching) is no longer acceptable to the public or faculty or anyone else. . .. Today … once students have been admitted, we have said to them, “You have what it takes to succeed.” Then it’s our job to help them succeed.”

Or, in other words, students were now “customers,” and as the old adage goes, “customers are always right.” The trends and implications are extraordinary.

Students are not getting smarter. They are being kept happy by administrators and faculty who consider them customers and clients.

I can attest to this. Back in the 1990s we had to pull an instructor out of teaching the big western civilization class because too many of his students were earning Fs. He was just being honest, but the then Dean said it was unacceptable.

By 2013 GPAs at private colleges were on the average over 0.2 points higher than those at public schools. “If you paid more for a college education in the consumer era, then you of course get a higher grade.”

Among the bottom lines is that “mediocre students are getting higher and higher grades.” Students, or clients, need to look good on paper so they can “succeed.” Everywhere grades are awash in “As.”

Rojstaczer writes that “America’s professors and college administrators have been promoting a fiction that college students routinely study long and hard, participate actively in class, write impressive papers, and ace their tests.  The truth is that, for a variety of reasons, professors today commonly make no distinctions between mediocre and excellent student performance and are doing so from Harvard to CSU-San Bernardino.”

The closing monologue for Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion was “Well, that’s the news from Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.”

We have become Lake Wobegon in American higher education, a delightful fiction to entertain us but which few truly believe, except the corps of university administrators who now “brand” a university’s character and performance. More later.

Published as “Higher Ed and the Art of Grade Inflation,” in The Tuscaloosa News,” Sept. 30, 2018.







Posted in: Education