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Higher Education Watch
GPAs Rising, Rising, Rising

American higher education is saddling students with record levels of debt and incubating repressive political movements … but at least it is producing graduates with higher GPAs than ever. Over at the Washington Post, Catherine Rampbell highlights the latest data on grade inflation at U.S. colleges:

The waters of Lake Wobegon have flooded U.S. college campuses. A’s — once reserved for recognizing excellence and distinction — are today the most commonly awarded grades in America.

That’s true at both Ivy League institutions and community colleges, at huge flagship publics and tiny liberal arts schools, and in English, ethnic studies and engineering departments alike. Across the country, wherever and whatever they study, mediocre students are increasingly likely to receive supposedly superlative grades.

Such is the takeaway of a massive new report on grade inflation from Stuart Rojstaczer, a former Duke University professor, using data he and Furman University professor Chris Healy collected.

This inflation does not reflect an increase in student achievement. Instead, according to Rojstaczer, colleges have felt pressure to reward students more and more lavishly for the same performance as higher education transformed into a “consumer-based culture” starting in the 1980s. “Students are paying more for a product every year, and increasingly they want and get the reward of a good grade for their purchase.” This explanation is complementary to Ross Douthat’s 2005 observation that neoliberalism produced a kind of “crisis of confidence” in academia, especially in the humanities, as its purpose changed from imbuing students with lifelong truths to maximizing their advantage in a competitive marketplace.

It’s almost certainly true that the rise of consumer culture has contributed to grade inflation (interestingly, BYU, which has a relatively captive base of students/consumers, is the one college in Rojstacser’s dataset to exhibit a flat GPA curve since 2000). But a well-functioning consumer market would not exhibit this level of inflation. After all, GPAs lose their power as a signaling device to employers if they creep upward year after year.

This further strengthens the case, which we have been made more than once, for a standardized testing system to measure student performance across colleges. In addition to undermining intellectual standards, the lack of a rigorous college assessment system probably also favors students from elite schools at the expense of everyone else—if employers can’t count on student GPAs to deliver valuable information, they are more likely to defer to the quality of school attended. So a carefully constructed system of exams could help beef up standards, restrain inflation, and level the playing field by helping the many determined and ambitious students from West Texas State prove that they are just as capable as their Ivy League counterparts.

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  • Fat_Man

    At the bigger more prestigious schools, tuition is the driving force. you are not going to get parents to fork over $60,000/yr to see Junior get a C average. At these prices, the students are consumers, and the customer is always right.

    • rheddles

      And the profs are all graduates of the Velvet Jones School of Technology

  • Jim__L

    “in academia, especially in the humanities, as its purpose changed from imbuing students with lifelong truths to maximizing their advantage in a competitive marketplace.”

    No. They did not change from imbuing students with lifelong truths. They changed those truths from the insights into human nature that have traditionally set Western Civilization ahead of the rest of the world, and replaced them with Political Correctness.

    “[A] standardized testing system to measure student performance across colleges” will not do anyone any good, as it is simply a single set of regulations to be captured — another form of Credentialism. It is a system that can and will be gamed.

    No. What you need to do is give employers the freedom to test their prospective employees in any way they see fit. These decisions matter most to the hiring companies, so they need to be given the power to gather what information they need to make those decisions. Then put in place transparent metrics as to how many graduates from any given educational institution get jobs. Once these are in place, the rest will follow.

    • Andrew Allison

      Don’t employers already have the ability to test their prospective employee in any (unbiased) way they see fit? Does anybody have any data on the relative importance to employers of the degree or the grade? Of how long it took to acquire the degree (doesn’t taking six years says more about the student than the school or the grade)? Just one more nail in the coffin of the “you’ve gotta have a degree” scam. Sadly, US post-secondary education appears to have become a giant and very costly diploma mill.

      • Frank Natoli

        Not really. Any genuinely objective testing will have all kinds of “wrong” demographic results, and who needs those lawsuits?

      • JollyGreenChemist

        Nope. The Supreme Court ruled in Duke Power, i believe, that tests are racially biased when minorities perform poorer on them than whites. Using a rest to screen potential employees then becomes unconstitutional racial discrimination.

  • Bucky Barkingham

    “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.”

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