In a post entitled “A History of College Grade Inflation” on the New York Times Economix blog, Catherine Rampell recently drew attention to the work of Stuart Rojstaczer, formerly a Duke professor of geophysics, and Christopher Healy, a computer science professor at Furman University. According to Rampell, “The researchers collected historical data on letter grades awarded by more than 200 four-year colleges and universities. Their analysis (published in the Teachers College Record) confirm that the share of A grades awarded has skyrocketed over the years.” Here’s the central finding of the study:
Most recently, about 43 percent of all letter grades given were A’s, an increase of 28 percentage points since 1960 and 12 percentage points since 1988. The distribution of B’s has stayed relatively constant; the growing share of A’s instead comes at the expense of a shrinking share of C’s, D’s and F’s. In fact, only about 10 percent of grades awarded are D’s and F’s.
What does this mean in the aggregate? ”By the end of the last decade, A’s and B’s represented 73 percent of all grades awarded at public schools, and 86 percent of all grades awarded at private schools,” Rampell notes.
These are stunning findings. Consider those two data points once more:
- 43% of all grades are A’s. (This despite the fact that students spend less time studying today than they did in the past–27 hours per week instead of 40.)
- Secondly, 86% of all grades given at private schools are A’s and B’s. (Garrison Keillor’s vision of America as populated exclusively by “above-average” children is realized!)
This plays out, of course, in real life, in classrooms in which many students expect at the very least a B for even marginal effort. Completing the paper, successfully double-spacing it, plopping together a bibliography–this is the material of outstanding work today in many of our schools. Professors who dare to touch this emotional live-wire risk criticism, low class enrollment, or the fate worse than death, damning reviews on online “rate-my-professor” sites. Call this the Self-esteem Code.
Beyond an entitlement mentality–driven by often-unseen narcissism–many students approach college transactionally. They give the college their money, the professor teaches them, they earn the degree. Writing in The New Yorker, Louis Menand has commented on this trend:
They attend either because the degree is a job requirement or because they’ve been seduced by the siren song “college for everyone.”…the situation [is] analogous to the real-estate bubble: Americans are being urged to invest in something they can’t afford and don’t need. Why should you have to pass a college-level literature class if you want to be a state trooper? To show that you can tough it out with Henry James?
In other words, a good number of students enter college viewing the professor as a kind of job-partner. The person up front teaching the class has some kind of unspoken requirement to pass all of his students; call it the Competency Code.
What has resulted from pressure from these students (in addition to other factors)? Harvard University professor Harvey Mansfield caused a stir some years when he published a piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education that publicized his practice of awarding students two grades: the grade they deserved and the grade they actually received. Other professors simply swallow hard and pass out the A’s like candy. The trend continues with no end in sight. Actually, scratch that last sentence; at this rate, in a few decades, every student will receive a 4.0. That is the terminus of this trajectory.
Why do Christians care about this? Because we believe that intellectual study is not a means to an end, but is an end in itself. It fundamentally glorifies the Lord when done from a posture of worship (1 Cor. 10:31). Furthermore, we believe in fairness and justice, in workers who earn their wages, so to speak (cf. Prov. 11:18). Grades, as with all forms of assessment, are no less a spiritual matter than our quiet time or prayer walk.
Christians involved in higher education–whether professors or parents or students or the pastors who counsel these folks–will have to carefully discern how they personally respond to grade inflation. Some instructors will have a hard-line response, while others (junior professors, perhaps) will find it necessary to walk carefully so as not to scare off undergrads like so many deer stepping gingerly through the academic forest.
At every level of our institutions, however, Christians are called to stand for truth and oppose falsehood, whether in worldview conflict or classroom exams. In a culture that sets low expectations and rewards them, believers will stand out by prizing hard work, fairness, and a more principled approach to teaching and instruction. We do not preach cheap grace, after all, but costly grace; we do not proclaim a gospel of easy-believism, but one that calls us, like Christ, to take up our cross and follow him, embracing a life of cruciform determination and focused labor.