by Walter Brasch
About 1.8 million students will graduate from college this year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. At least one-third of them will graduate with honors. In some colleges, about half will be honor graduates.
It’s not that the current crop is that bright, it’s that honors is determined by grade point average. Because of runaway grade inflation, the average grade in college is now an “A.” About 43 percent of all college grades are “A”s, according to a recent study by Stuart Rojstaczer and Christopher Healy, and published in the prestigious Teachers College Record. About three-fourths of all grades are “A”s or “B”s.
Throw out the universal curve that applies to everything from height to house prices. That curve is reality. College grades are not.
At one time, the universal curve applied to college grades: “A”s were about 10 percent of all grades; “B”s were about 20 percent; “C”s were about 40 percent; “D”s were about 20 percent; and “F”s were about 10 percent. That grade break-down, which could be more or less, depending upon a number of factors, isn’t even ancient history—it’s more like an ethereal ghost that no one understands.
Drs. Rojstaczer and Healy report that in 1940 about 15 percent of all grades were “A”s. While grades of “B” have remained stable at about 35 percent for the past six decades, grades of “C” have dropped sharply from 35 percent to about 15 percent. Grades of “D” have dropped by half over the past six decades, while grades of “F” apparently are issued only to those students who didn’t show up for class or whose brain is bottled in formaldehyde in a science lab.
Several studies show a high correlation between high grades issued by professors to students and high evaluations of professors by students.
Why that matters is that professors are pragmatic. College administrations have taken an easy way to evaluate professors’ teaching abilities by having students fill out a multi-question survey at the end of the semester. Professors know that 19-year-olds will typically rate “likable” and non-demanding professors higher. Add those evaluations to a few meaningless professional papers delivered to a couple of dozen yawning academics at boring conferences and a list of university committees the professor was appointed or elected to, and opportunities for tenure and promotion increase.
Although there are thousands of excellent professors who excel in all areas of teaching and scholarship, many professors, even those with a string of academic letters after their names, may not even be aware they are not as rigorous as they should be. After all, their own professors, wanting to be liked and promoted, may not have demanded significant academic sweat, so they aren’t aware of what reasonable criteria should be for their own students. There is also the reality that collegial “get-togethers” and participation on useless college committees—and being liked by one’s colleagues—may be an easier route to tenure and promotion than doing rigorous scholarship and demanding the same from students.
Because of grade inflation, students avoid professors who believe the grade of “C” is the average grade and who set up standards that require students to do more than show up, read a couple of hundred pages, and answer a few questions. Fewer students in classes usually results in questions from administrators who may claim they believe in academic rigor and integrity, but who have the souls of Ebenezer Scrooge.
Some departments traditionally grade tougher than others. Science and engineering departments tend to have lower overall grade averages than those in social sciences and humanities. Education programs tend to have the highest grade averages. It’s not unusual for the average grade in elementary education courses to be an A-minus, and in secondary education to be a B-plus. That means either our future teachers are brighter than the light from a supernova—or that some of the profs who are teaching our future teachers don’t know there are more than just two letters in the alphabet.
In some classes, at all educational levels, we don’t even require students to know anything more than hand signals, preparation of crib sheets, and techniques of paraphrasing five different articles and calling the result a research paper—assuming the professor even requires that much. The one class in which most students can legitimately earn a grade of “A” without cheating is Cheating.
Add into the slurpy mix of academics a few inconvenient pressures. Athletics coaches want to make sure their pack of future draft picks stay academically eligible. A significant minority of students spend more time trying to plea-bargain the professor into raising the grade than they do studying for the exams. And when plea-bargaining fails, hovering overhead are the helicopter parents who want to make sure professors truly understand how brilliant their darling children are, and how (horror!) a B-minus not only is the wrong grade, but can damage their darling little Boo-Boo’s fragile psyche and chances to become a Fortune 500 CEO. Besides, the parent reasons that buying a college degree is like buying a car—if you pay the money, you should get a car.
If the professor doesn’t yield to parental pressure, there’s always some administrator with jelly for a spine, and a pencil-brain that equates quality of education with how many children she or he can capture and put into brick-and-mortar buildings. The pursuit in college has been of achieving a critical mass of students who earn high enough grades to stay in college, sometimes for six years, rather than in developing knowledge and critical thinking skills—traits that administrators all claim they believe but don’t do more than pay “lip service.”
The problem of runaway grade inflation is that the exceptional student receives the same grade as the above average student, and the mediocre student can slide into a degree. Until professors stand up for academic rigor, even against the prattling of their administrators and the practices of their more “likable” peers, and are willing to push not only themselves but their students beyond their limits, there is no reason for students to expect academic rigor—and every reason for them to expect to be able to graduate with honors.
[Dr. Brasch is an award-winning journalist, former newspaper and magazine reporter and editor, and professor emeritus from a Pennsylvania state university. His latest book is Fracking Pennsylvania, an in-depth investigation of the health and environmental effects of deep earth drilling in the Marcellus Shale.]