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College Grade Inflation: More Students Earning an A for Effort

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Although President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan started a “college for all” campaign to achieve the goal of having the most college graduates in the world by 2020, recent studies allege that most undergraduates aren’t learning much during their first two years of college.

College Students Not Learning Much Despite Good Grades

The book was compiled from student survey responses, transcript data, and results from the Collegiate Learning Assessment, a standardized test taken by college students in their first semester and at the end of their second year, but Richard Arum and Josipa Roska’s Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses caused quite a stink when it was released earlier this year.

“They might graduate, but they are failing to develop the higher-order cognitive skills that it is widely assumed college students should master. These findings are sobering and should be a cause for concern,” Lee Shulman, former president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, said of today’s college students in a January 2011 Chronicle of Higher Education article.

Some research even claims that most college graduates are ill-prepared for the workforce, causing many employers to prefer job candidates with master’s degrees over those who only hold a bachelor’s, suggesting that bachelor’s degree recipients aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.

What is Grade Inflation?

College grade inflation, which happens when higher grades are given for work that would have received lower grades in the past, is most likely contributing to the problem.

The New York Times reports that a recently-released study from Stuart Rojstaczer, a retired Duke University professor who has been researching the evolution of grading in colleges for several years and even created the website GradeInflation.com to share his findings, shows that the most common grade at four-year U.S. colleges and universities is an A and the second most common grade is a B, suggesting that grade inflation is running rampant on college campuses.

Rojstaczer, who conducted the research for his latest study with Furman University professor Christopher Healy, found that roughly 43 percent of all letter grades at U.S. colleges and universities given are A’s, an increase of 28 percentage points since 1960 and 12 percentage points since 1988.

Brief History of Grade Inflation

Rojstaczer himself offered a brief history of grade inflation in a 2003 Washington Post article. He stated that A’s are “common as dirt” at today’s universities because it’s become so difficult for professors to grade honestly.

A’s became the dominant grade while C’s began to diminish in the 1960s. The trend subsided slightly in the 1970s, and reappeared full-force in the 1980s. He explained that D’s and F’s, typically considered “academic disaster,” began to disappear during the Vietnam era because failing college meant becoming eligible for the draft.

Pros and Cons of Grade Inflation

Mark Bauerlein, a New York Daily News staff writer, says that “of all the problems with higher education, this one has been ignored for far too long” in regards to grade inflation.

It’s no shocker that students like receiving A’s and feeling proud. Some students even feel “entitled” to good grades and professors oblige, according to a 2009 National Association of Scholars article.

As consumers who are paying to receive an education, they feel that earning an A or B is their right—even though they are hitting the books far less often than students of the past. A 2010 study conducted by two University of California professors found that the average college student in 1961 studied 24 hours a week. Today’s average student studies 14 hours per week.

The National Association of Scholars article also points out that many of today’s college professors experienced the turbulent 1960s and 1970s, giving them firsthand knowledge just how disruptive and even dangerous college students can become when they’re irritated over grades. Some professors at private colleges have to be cautious with grading for fear of being known as a hard grader, losing students and endangering their own departments, salaries, and even jobs.

Many Professors Don’t Like Grading

An adjunct English professor writing under the pseudonym Professor X pondered if he should feel guilty for failing students in a recent Salon online except from his book In the Basement of the Ivory Tower, explaining that “There is something in the human psyche that shrinks at sitting in judgment of another’s efforts.”

“We don’t like to admit that one student may be smarter, sharper, harder working, better prepared, more energetic, more painstaking — simply a better student — than another. So we level the playing field,” he explained.

Colleges Attempting to Stop Grade Inflation

Colleges and universities are well aware that grade inflation is a problem, but what are they doing about it? A 2009 Christian Science Monitor article, also by grade inflation expert Rojstaczer, states that grades continue to go up regardless of the quality of education. Princeton University set new guidelines to limit A’s on average to 35 percent of students in a class, which seems to be working. Grades at Princeton began dropping while academic rigor started to make a comeback.

Universities are Outsourcing Grading to Evaluators

Considering Professor X’s stance that professors do not like hurting anyone’s feelings by issuing bad grades even if students deserve them, some colleges and universities are outsourcing the task of grading.

According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, Western Governors University recently hired 300 adjunct professors that do nothing but grade students’ work. “They think like assessors, not professors,” Diane Johnson, who is in charge of the university’s cadre of graders, told The Chronicle. “The evaluators have no contact with the students at all. They don’t know them. They don’t know what color they are, what they look like, or where they live. Because of that, there is no temptation to skew results in any way other than to judge the students’ work.”

Sounds good in theory, but considering that Western Governors University is an online institution, it’s easy to imagine that even the students “regular professors” don’t know much about them, either.

The University of Central Florida, a traditional brick-and-mortar school, is also outsourcing the grading of some essays—to computers. Due to improvements in artificial intelligence techniques, software can now grade essays. A recent article in the UCF student newspaper titled Let’s Put a Stop to Robo-Grading suggests that students aren’t too thrilled with the practice.


Melissa Rhone+

Melissa Rhone earned her Bachelor of Music in Education from the University of Tampa. She resides in the Tampa Bay area and enjoys writing about college, pop culture, and epilepsy awareness.

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Nelson F. Norman, Ph.D. about 7 years ago Nelson F. Norman, Ph.D.

A most interesting survey of a problem not so great as presented. Should Harvard give all "A" grades in a class? Of course. Unless some student is foot-dragging, everyone in that crop of valedictorians should ern and receive an "A". That problem of the for-profit and on-line grab-cash deals is huge.