Sadly, there is not a lengthy academic literature on grade inflation, which is surprising considering that one would think that this would be an important topic to discuss among educators. The few articles that have been published in academic journals are often written by social scientists employing complex statistical methods that may be difficult to comprehend for those like myself who are accustomed to the humanities. In his 2009 article in Educational Research Review, Anton Oleinik notes that from 1993 to 2008, only 56 texts presented the findings of original research and theories on grade inflation. And yet, newspapers and magazines over the same period had 989 articles. The natural question is why? Any professor knows that talking about—let alone publishing on—student evaluations threatens to open up a can of worms. Oleinik ponders whether academic rigor has been compromised by corruption in the academic system, and more specifically, the corruption of market forces. If academia was fully autonomous, Oleinik believes, then the pursuit of truth would be its overriding goal. But “[w]hen the university is run as a business enterprise, the imperative of the search for truth appears less relevant than financial soundness and profit-maximization” (160). Capitalism, if taken to its furthest logical extent, can be quite detrimental to truth and knowledge. Those who have studied the so-called “debate” about human-caused climate change, with all of the financial resources of the fossil fuel industry wickedly deployed to poison our public discourse and obfuscate and distract from the truth, know this already. University departments with the highest enrollments get the highest percentage of the university budget (160). If some departments want a greater share of that university budget, they are incentivized to lower standards in order to attract higher enrollments. And what better way than grade inflation to boost enrollment?
Grade inflation, as I discussed in a previous post in this series, is also a consequence of the increased vulnerability of faculty in terms of job security. It is no coincidence that grade inflation, higher tuition, and the shift to a much higher proportion of part-time instructors in the classroom have occurred in roughly the same decades. Jack Kostal, Nathan Kuncle, and Paul Sackett captured the deleterious implications of the student-as-customer mentality when they wrote, “As the costs of running colleges have increased, rising tuition and pressure on instructors to maintain student satisfaction has led to an environment where students are viewed as customers rather than apprentices to be trained” (13). If the percentage of non-tenured faculty—contingent, lecturers, VAPs, adjuncts, freeway fliers—increases, we would expect an increase in average grades. As William Abbott writes in Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, “[f]or non-tenure-track faculty, how they grade can affect whether their courses fills and hence whether they will keep their jobs” (33). This describes a moral hazard. It is equivalent to a police department arresting more people arbitrarily just to “get the numbers up” because some politician has a contract with the private prison industry and wants to establish a reputation for being “tough on crime,” regardless of the actual urgency and danger of crime (See the Comstat system covered by David Simon’s The Wire) It is equivalent to a pharmaceutical company in the 1990s lying to the public about the addictive features of prescription opioids so they can profit more. It is equivalent to managers for Wells Fargo opening up fake bank accounts to artificially inflate profits or Volkswagen circumventing emissions standards. In each case, the profit motive corrupts the intent of the occupation. Abbott adds that studies by Brenda Sonner, Boualem Kezin, Susan Pariseau, and Francis Quinn suggest that faculty who are less secure generally grade higher (33). The most damning part mentioned in Abbott’s article is how the distribution of grades relates to the disciplinary consequences for faculty coming from above. Administrators will punish faculty members for being too harsh in terms of grades—in one case trying to get a professor removed—while Jonathan Knight of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) commented that he was not familiar with any case in which a professor had suffered an economic loss due to grading too easily (34-35).
After surveying the literature, Wright and Palmer concluded that if students expect to receive a higher grade, they will rate the instructors more highly (4). This is problematic. It throws into question whether professors who receive high marks on their student evaluations are actually good teachers—something that is admittedly subjective—rather than merely being generous graders or having good looks or appealing personalities. Ellis et al. found that the average student grade given in a course was a significant predictor of average student ratings of instructional quality. If high grades are correlated with higher teaching evaluations, they are a flawed metric for assessing teacher performance.
Once the skewed incentive of grade inflation is set in motion, it is very difficult to reverse. Students, under the illusion that “choice” and “competition” lead to the best outcomes, will choose the professor and class that gives them the greatest possible return (a grade) for the least amount of effort. This is one of the many corrosive effects of adopting a pro-business philosophy in public education. Giving people more choices, as I often say to libertarians, does not necessarily lead to better outcomes. Allowing students the "choice" of dropping a class halfway through the term merely to protect their GPA is technically a choice, but it can also contribute to grade inflation. Rather than push themselves to improve their skills, students have the option of taking the easy way out. When I was complaining about the evaluation process with another educator—a K-12 teacher I very much respect by the way—he said to me, “You realize you’re selling a product, right?” I was stunned and I don’t remember what exactly my response was. But it should have been, “No! Absolutely not! That is the worst way to think about education and I would have never made all those sacrifices to get a PhD in my subject if I thought I was selling a product!!” Keep in mind that this whole trite mantra of “let’s run a public good like a business” and the “let’s let the CEO run our government” is the same contorted mentality that led to the catastrophic “election” of president* Trump.
To the student who protests, “I pay x amount of dollars for this class and therefore I should get… [choose your concession on the part of the professor that makes it easier for the student],” my response is this: I question your entire premise. You pay a lot of money for the course because the state doesn’t send its tax dollars to public universities as much as it used to (I'm talking as a percentage, not nominal dollar amounts). Instead, a significant portion of tax money and tuition is diverted toward administrative hiring, athletics departments, and flashy dorms; ya know, anywhere except teaching, which used to be considered the fundamental mission of any university. I know, strange to think that a university would be about learning, right? Under a fairer and just system, the state would make higher education free, thus eliminating the customer mentality. You wouldn’t feel pressure to go into debt for your education and I wouldn’t feel pressure to compromise rigor and intellectual standards. Each side—student and professor—wins when education is not a business.
What matters the most is whether learning is taking place in the classroom. This should be our utmost priority and everything else should be secondary. Student evaluations may measure whether learning takes place, but any teacher with the slightest bit of skepticism realizes that this isn’t often the case. And the studies mentioned above should cast doubt on that very notion. Wright and Palmer add the caveat that positive evaluations could result from student perceptions that they are learning more, and that the instructor may be facilitating this learning. But if students are learning less precisely because professors are lowering standards for the shallow pursuit of winning glorified popularity contests, then we have a major, societal, and systemic problem on our hands.
- Let’s de-prioritize GPA when it comes to employment decisions and entrance to graduate school, medical school, law school, scholarships, etc. If grade inflation is a problem and some schools, departments, and professors inflate more than others, then GPA may very well be a weak indicator of academic prowess and achievement.
- As Talia Bar, Vrinda Kadiyali, and Asaf Zussman point out, when we do show grades on the college transcript, we should show not just the grade, but the median grade for the class. An A- in a very challenging course looks a lot better than an A- where the median grade was a B+. If you’re going to take this step, don’t make the median grades publicly available. If they are, then we’ll fall into the same trap where customers (students) shop around for the best product (the easy A with the least effort). The professors that don’t inflate grades will see declining enrollments and might have their classes canceled. They have to sink or swim and the result is most likely that less learning will take place.
- Demand that public education be funded as it once was. According to the Master Plan for Higher Education in California, passed by Governor Pat Brown in 1960, tuition at both the UC and CSU systems was supposed to be free (see image above). Since then, especially after the “tax revolt” of the late-70s and early-80s, California politicians have found ways to get around this, particularly by playing the language game of “fees” rather than tuition. I say raise taxes on the wealthy to make all public schools virtually free of cost. Given the alarming levels of income inequality that have been documented in study after study, this tax increase is both warranted and morally righteous.