You’d get an argument if you ran that explanation by Professor Ron Srigley, who teaches at the University of Prince Edward Island. In this thoroughly iconoclastic essay published in March, he stated, “Over the past fourteen years of teaching, my students’ grade-point averages have steadily gone up while real student achievement has dropped. Papers I would have failed ten years ago on the grounds that they were unintelligible … I now routinely assign grades of C or higher.”
Professor Srigley points to one factor that many other professors have observed — students simply won’t read. They aren’t in the habit of reading (due to falling K-12 standards) and rarely do assigned readings in college. “They will tell you that they don’t read because they don’t have to. They can get an A without ever opening a book,” he writes.
We also have good evidence that on average, today’s college students spend much less time in studying in homework than students used to. In this 2010 study, Professor Philip Babcock and Mindy Marks found that college students today spend only about two thirds as much time as they did some fifty years ago. That’s hardly consistent with the notion that students today are really earning all those A grades.
On the whole, today’s students are receiving substantially higher grades for substantially lower academic gains than in the past.
Grade inflation is consistent with the customer friendly, “college experience” model that has mushroomed alongside the old, “you’ve come here to learn” college model. For students who merely want the degree to which many believe themselves entitled, rigorous grading is as unwelcome as cold showers and spartan meals would be at a luxury resort. Leaders at most colleges know that if they don’t satisfy their student-customers, they will find another school that will.
Exactly what is the problem, though?
Grade inflation could be seen as harmful to the downstream parties, the future employers of students who coast through college with high grades but little intellectual benefit. Doesn’t grade inflation trick them into over-estimating the capabilities of students?
That is a very minor concern. For one thing, it seems to be the case that employers don’t really pay much attention to college transcripts. In this NAS piece, Academically Adrift author Richard Arum writes, “Examining post-college transitions of recent graduates, Josipa Roksa and I have found that course transcripts are seldom considered by employers in the hiring process.”
That’s predictable. People in business have come to expect grade inflation just as they have come to expect monetary inflation. Naturally, they take measures to avoid bad hiring decisions just as they take measures to avoid bad investment decisions. They have better means of evaluating applicants than merely looking at GPAs.
Instead, the real harm of grade inflation is that it is a fraud on students who are misled into thinking that they are more competent than they really are.
It makes students believe they are good writers when in fact they are poor writers. It makes them believe they can comprehend books and documents when they can barely do so. It makes them think they can treat college as a Five Year Party or a Beer and Circus bacchanalia because they seem to be doing fine, when they’re actually wasting a lot of time and money.
Dishonest grading from professors is as bad as dishonest health reports from doctors who just want their patients to feel happy would be. The truth may be unpleasant, but it’s better to know it than to live in blissful ignorance.