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Education Reporter

Through Grade Inflation, B+ is the New Average
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Prof. Stuart Rojstaczer of Duke University tracks the history of grade inflation in American higher education on his website, gradeinflation.org. From 1991 to 2007, the average GPA at American private universities rose from 3.09 to 3.30. The average GPA at public institutions rose from 2.93 to 3.11. Of course, there was a lot of inflation before 1991, as well. Rojstaczer estimates that the average GPA across all institutions of higher education in the 1930s was 2.35.

Time-use surveys confirm the impression that many college students today do very little work for those high GPAs. Gone is the expectation that students will do two or three hours of outside work for every hour they spend in class; this may still hold at certain schools or for certain classes, but on average, full-time seniors at four-year colleges spend just 14 hours a week studying. Students 40 years ago studied about twice as much as students today. A study earlier this year from Outside the Classroom shows that among the 69% of freshmen who drink alcohol, nearly half spend more time drinking than they do studying. Freshmen who drink spend an average of 10.2 hours a week drinking, and 8.4 hours studying.

Some administrators and others have argued that students today are actually smarter, and deserve the higher grades they receive. This may be partially true at particular institutions that have become much more selective in admissions in recent years, with a corresponding rise in student achievement. Rojstaczer, however, believes that even at those specific institutions, the rise in SAT scores fails to account for the larger part of the rise in GPAs. Furthermore, the average SAT score for all incoming college students has declined steadily over the past 30 years, even as grades continue to rise.

College students are less well educated than they were in the past both when they arrive on campus and when they leave. A 2005 study from the National Center for Education Statistics found that just 31% of college graduates were able to "read a complex book and extrapolate from it."

Prof. Thomas C. Reeves, writing in the Journal of the National Association of Scholars (4-16-09), says he believes the ideological bent of the modern academy is partly to blame. "Contemporary college and university faculties, especially in the humanities, are overwhelmingly on the Left, politically and culturally," writes Reeves. "These politically correct professors routinely see the classroom as an opportunity to win converts to pacifism, socialism, feminism, moral relativism, and an assortment of racial theories." When a political agenda drives the syllabus, acquiring and demonstrating knowledge take a back seat.

In his article, titled "The Happy Classroom: Grade Inflation Works," Reeves relates that he retired in 2001 after 40 years in the college classroom. "What hastened my departure was the fact that my students . . . would quickly drop a survey course in American history if a single book, other than the textbook, was assigned." Students seemed to expect to pass the class if they merely showed up, without even reading the textbook. This appearance is borne out by hard data: researchers at UC-Irvine found that a third of students believed they deserved a B just for attending class. 40% believed they deserved at least a B if they did the required reading.

Reeves blames several factors for the steady upward climb of GPAs and the downward descent of standards. Student evaluations increasingly affect professors' tenure status and salaries. Then, too, if too many students drop a course because it requires them to read real books, the course could be cancelled and the professor could lose his job or the opportunity for advancement. Polls show that fewer students today are interested in high ideals such as education or changing the world. Instead, they want to advance in lucrative careers. "Obtaining a degree with the least possible effort is a common goal," writes Reeves.

Some of the nation's most prestigious universities are among the worst offenders when it comes to grade inflation. 91% of Harvard students graduated with honors in 2008. While 22% of grades given at Harvard in 1966 were A or A-, last year 50% of grades were A or A-. Brown University professors award A grades two-thirds of the time.

A few universities are holding a firm line against grade inflation, or taking steps to reverse the damage already done. Princeton University is the most notable example: in 2003, Princeton's administration mandated that no more than 35% of students in a class could receive a grade of A. Wellesley College and Reed College have also successfully fought grade inflation.

Prof. Rojstaczer asked Princeton's Dean Nancy Malkiel why, in the six years since Princeton initiated its grade deflation effort, more schools haven't followed suit. "Because it's hard work," Malkiel replied. "Because you have to persuade the faculty that it's important to do the work." But degrees from schools with less grade inflation are more meaningful, as are any honors received upon graduation.

Writing in the Christian Science Monitor, Rojstaczer strongly encourages faculty members and administrators to do the hard work of making college meaningful. "The alternative is a student body that barely studies and drinks out of boredom. That's not acceptable. Colleges and universities must roll up their sleeves, bring down inflated grades, and encourage real learning. It's not an impossible task. There are successful examples that can be followed. I'm looking forward to the day when we can return to being proud of the education that the nation's colleges and universities provide." (3-29-09)

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