Grade Inflation & Accreditation in Higher Education
When I returned from my sojourn at the National Institute of Health in Bethesda, Maryland on Tuesday after having the catheter out the previous day, I found a pile of mail waiting for me – the usual bills, a get-well card from a kind nephew, and so forth. Among the items was an issue of Inside Academe, which is published by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA: www.goacta.org) – an outfit that serves a watchdog function with regard to the madness that has American higher education in its grip and that seeks to interest alumni and trustees in setting things straight.
On the third page was an article that caught my eye. It begins:
America’s higher-education accreditation system is broken. The current system – which forces schools to be certified by regional accreditors in order to receive federal money – was created to safeguard taxpayer dollars. But today it safeguards mediocrity and the status quo.
Once a school receives accreditation, it hardly ever loses that status, but new schools – especially innovative schools – often find it prohibitively difficult to obtain accreditation. The system misleads parents into believing that accreditation equals quality, and it wastes piles of money. Christopher Eisgruber, provost of Princeton University, testified that renewing accreditation can cost a single college or university over $1 million and hundreds of hours of staff time.
The claims advanced in these two paragraphs, in fact, understate the problem. The accreditation system was originally set up by colleges and universities with an eye to separating the sheep from the goats so that parents could have some idea of what they were getting into. The federal government had nothing to do with it. But the old order was hijacked a long time ago, and in the process yet another instrument was created for the micro-management by the federal government of entities that would not otherwise fall under its jurisdiction. The maneuver is simple. To get federal funding, a school must be accredited, and to get accreditation they must meet certain standards.
There are two things wrong with what goes on. The first is that the accrediting agencies are worse than useless. They are extremely intrusive and demand all sorts of data that the institutions must assiduously collect; they systematically ignore the deep-seated corruption that besets our colleges and universities; and they make everyone, including those of us who teach in the classroom, jump through ridiculous hoops.
Much could be said about this, but one issue can stand for all. In the last half-century, all but a few of American colleges and universities have, in effect, abandoned grading. Consider the history of grading at the University of Minnesota, which is one of the better state universities. As one observer puts it, “In 1960, the average undergraduate grade awarded in the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Minnesota was 2.27 on a four-point scale.,” and now 53% of the grades given are A’s.
In other words, the average letter grade at the University of Minnesota in the early 1960s was about a C+, and that was consistent with average grades at other colleges and universities in that era. In fact, that average grade of C+ (2.30-2.35 on a 4-point scale) had been pretty stable at America's colleges going all the way back to the 1920s (see chart above from GradeInflation.com, a website maintained by Stuart Rojstaczer, a retired Duke University professor who has tirelessly crusaded for several decades against "grade inflation" at U.S. universities).
By 2006, the average GPA at public universities in the U.S. had risen to 3.01 and at private universities to 3.30. That means that the average GPA at public universities in 2006 was equivalent to a letter grade of B, and at private universities a B+, and it's likely that grades and GPAs have continued to inflate over the last six years.
Since 1998, as Mark J. Perry points out, the average grade given in most classes taught at American colleges and universities has come to be an A. Witness the headline in the Twin Cities Star Tribune: "At U, concern grows that 'A' stands for average."
There is (behind a pay-wall, alas) a useful article by Stuart Rojstaczer and Christopher Healy in Teacher’s College Record entitled “Where A Is Ordinary: The Evolution of American College and University Grading, 1940–2009,” tracing the trend as it applies to two hundred four-year colleges and universities. Their conclusion: “It is likely that at many selective and highly selective schools, undergraduate GPAs are now so saturated at the high end that they have little use as a motivator of students and as an evaluation tool for graduate and professional schools and employers.”
Connected with grade inflation is a sharp decline in the number of hours students at our colleges and universities devote to studying for the courses they take. And connected with this is the fact that many of those in attendance appear to learn next to nothing while they are there. As Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa observe in their book Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, we are wasting resources on a very great scale. In the heyday of communism, eastern Europeans would quip, “We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us.” For a long time now, American students could have been saying, “We pretend to study, and they pretend to grade our work.” Factories in the old Soviet Union reduced the value of their inputs, and so do many of our institutions of higher education.
Of course, grade inflation is nothing new. It began with a vengeance when I was in college at Cornell and Yale between 1967 and 1971, and the malady has deepened with every passing year. Moreover, grade inflation is something that lies within the proper purview of the accrediting agencies. If our colleges and universities are not actually grading their students, how can they justify conferring credentials on them?
To the best of my knowledge, however, none of the accrediting agencies has ever tackled the problem – which admits of an easy solution. All that the agency would have to do is to make accreditation contingent on the imposition of a grading curve within each of its departments so that a C+ would once again become the average grade, and this would be perfectly proper – for the point of accreditation is to certify that an institution of a certain kind is what it purports to be.
Instead, however, in recent years, the accrediting agencies have adopted an idiotic program sponsored by the schools of education (the least respectable part of any university that has the misfortune to include such a school). The fad is called “assessment,” and no one really knows what it means. I have gone through the accreditation process twice in the last fifteen years at two different institutions, and I never had any idea what was the point. In its latest instantiation, we are required to list the grades we give on our paper assignments and to write up ten multiple-choice questions pertinent to any course we teach so that the college can administer to graduating seniors a test on what they remember of these courses and report the pertinent statistics. The entire exercise is a colossal waste of time and resources.
The accreditation system could also become dangerous. Indeed, if left in place, it is bound to do great harm. This became evident when President George W. Bush made Margaret Spellings Secretary of Education in 2005. She had earlier been involved in devising “No Child Left Behind,” which marked the beginning of an attempt to impose common federal standards on America’s public schools and to interfere further than ever before with local autonomy, and, upon assuming office, she set out to do for higher education in the United States what the Bush administration had tried to do with our grade schools, junior high schools, and high schools.
To this end, in September of her first year in office, Spellings convened what was called the Commission on the Future of Higher Education, charging it with “recommending a national strategy for reforming post-secondary education, with a particular focus on how well colleges and universities are preparing students for the 21st-century workplace.” The final report urged that our colleges and universities be brought into line, and that the accrediting agencies be made the instruments by which our colleges and universities are forced to conform.
Had Spellings been a Democratic appointee, she might have gotten away with this. Instead, she stirred a reaction within higher education from those fearful of what the Republicans might do, and this resulted in the passage in August, 2008 of the Higher Education Opportunity Act, which, among other things, barred the Security of Education from establishing “any criteria that specifies, defines, or prescribes the standards that accrediting agencies or associations shall use to assess any institution’s success with respect to student achievement.” But the idea has been suggested, and the genie is out of the bottle. I could easily imagine an ambitious Democratic administration reversing course on this question and imposing by this means its dictates on all of our nation’s colleges and universities.
I was, therefore, pleased to learn that ACTA is now pressing the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI) to reform the accreditation by ending the link between accreditation and federal funding and by replacing “the current system with minimally intrusive certification of financial stability and educational outcomes.” I would only add that ACTA should specify that to gain accreditation these schools should be forced to prove that they actually grade the work of their students. In the absence of this sort of assessment, there can be no educational outcomes for the ordinary student.