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.