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.

There are 24 comments.

  1. Will Collier Member

    Thankfully, there are a few exceptions. Check out this chart from GradeInflation.com:

    http://gradeinflation.com/figure4new.gif

    Way over there on the right side you’ll find my alma mater, Auburn University, where I’m proud to say grade inflation has never been in fashion (unlike many of our SEC brethren *cough*Georgia*cough*).

    Some 20 years ago, when I showed up to register for grad school at the University of Texas, I asked the faculty rep from the admissions committee straight-out why he’d admitted me and my 3.0-my-God-that-was close GPA from AU (the Aerospace Engineering department at Texas was, and I think still is, considered among the top 5 in the country). The professor (who would be one of my thesis readers later) said, “We know where the good schools are. You’re going to find out that your 3.0 from Auburn is worth a lot more than some of the 3.8 and 3.9’s you’ll meet from other places.”

    And he was right.

    • #1
    • July 5, 2012, at 5:33 AM PDT
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  2. Israel P. Inactive
    Paul A. Rahe:

    Had Spelings been a Democratic appointee, she might have gotten away with this.

    Is there a special grade for misspelling “Spellings?” LOL!

    • #2
    • July 5, 2012, at 5:38 AM PDT
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  3. Rachel Lu Contributor

    Grade inflation is a squid with many tentacles, but one of the more pernicious is the heavy use of teaching evals in hiring, tenure and promotion. Professors have strong incentives to pander to students. Indeed, their livelihoods may depend on it.

    • #3
    • July 5, 2012, at 5:46 AM PDT
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  4. Paul A. Rahe Contributor
    Paul A. Rahe Post author
    Rachel Lu: Grade inflation is a squid with many tentacles, but one of the more pernicious is the heavy use of teaching evals in hiring, tenure and promotion. Professors have strong incentives to pander to students. Indeed, their livelihoods may depend on it. · 2 minutes ago

    All too true.

    • #4
    • July 5, 2012, at 5:49 AM PDT
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  5. Paul A. Rahe Contributor
    Paul A. Rahe Post author
    Will Collier: Thankfully, there are a few exceptions. Check out this chart from GradeInflation.com:

    http://gradeinflation.com/figure4new.gif

    Way over there on the right side you’ll find my alma mater, Auburn University, where I’m proud to say grade inflation has never been in fashion (unlike many of our SEC brethren *cough*Georgia*cough*).

    Some 20 years ago, when I showed up to register for grad school at the University of Texas, I asked the faculty rep from the admissions committee straight-out why he’d admitted me and my 3.0-my-God-that-was close GPA from AU (the Aerospace Engineering department at Texas was, and I think still is, considered among the top 5 in the country). The professor (who would be one of my thesis readers later) said, “We know where the good schools are. You’re going to find out that your 3.0 from Auburn is worth a lot more than some of the 3.8 and 3.9’s you’ll meet from other places.”

    And he was right. · 16 minutes ago

    Good for Auburn. Hillsdale is free from this malady as well.

    • #5
    • July 5, 2012, at 5:50 AM PDT
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  6. Mel Foil Inactive

    The main motivation for grade inflation, in the 1960s, I would attribute to the Sexual Revolution. Professors found…compelling new reasons…to desire the love and admiration of their students. At least some of their students. The Pill had just come into wide use. College coeds–now in charge of their own contraception–were feeling free. It was an exciting time I’m sure. Prior to the late ’60s, the opportunities for professors (to mix socially with students) were limited, but that changed. Not officially, but certainly it changed. “Youth” suddenly became a political category, more so than an age category. Were you vociferously against the Vietnam War? Then you were okay. Not so coincidentally, that’s when the grades started creeping up, and they couldn’t very well limit it to coeds. That’s my theory. That’s not the reason it happens today, but that’s how the whole trend got started.

    • #6
    • July 5, 2012, at 5:50 AM PDT
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  7. Paul A. Rahe Contributor
    Paul A. Rahe Post author
    Israel Pickholtz
    Paul A. Rahe:

    Had Spelings been a Democratic appointee, she might have gotten away with this.

    Is there a special grade for misspelling “Spellings?” LOL! · 11 minutes ago

    I later find one or two typos in every one of my posts. Alas.

    • #7
    • July 5, 2012, at 5:51 AM PDT
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  8. Paul A. Rahe Contributor
    Paul A. Rahe Post author

    I was there in the 1960s. I doubt that the sexual revolution had anything to do with it. Vietnam and the draft were frequently mentioned. Course evaluations had an impact. But my sense is that the real driver was the competition for students. More students meant more new lines. Those who counterfeited education profited greatly from it, and certain departments excelled at this form of dishonesty — psychology, sociology, communications, and education first and foremost. Bad money drives out good. Grade inflation lowers standards throughout an institution.

    • #8
    • July 5, 2012, at 5:59 AM PDT
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  9. Mel Foil Inactive
    Paul A. Rahe: I was there in the 1960s. I doubt that the sexual revolution had anything to do with it. Vietnam and the draft were frequently mentioned. Course evaluations had an impact. But my sense is that the real driver was the competition for students. More students meant more new lines. Those who counterfeited education profited greatly from it, and certain departments excelled at this form of dishonesty — psychology, sociology, communications, and education first and foremost. Bad money drives out good. Grade inflation lowers standards throughout an institution.

    There was the draft, motivating a lot of male high school seniors to go to college in the first place, and then wanting to be able to stay, in spite of poor study habits. But as for the other reason, it probably depends where you were.

    This may jog your memory (of the era,) or not:

    http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/hamptons-1960s-style-gallery-1.24326

    • #9
    • July 5, 2012, at 6:16 AM PDT
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  10. ChrisC Member

    I have been a college instructor at a two year private college. I always explained what grading on a curve meant to my students on day 1 (most of them had no idea or thought it meant adding a gratuitous 10 points to their scores). My curve was centered on a B- with equal numbers of A’s and D’s and F reserved for certain bad behaviors and grades more than 2 standard deviations below the mean. I recently had a discussion about what grading on a curve with my son (an “elite” college grad). His experience was that it was centered on a B+ with equal numbers of A’s and B’s with C’s reserved for the very worst grades. He had never heard of anyone getting a D or F.

    • #10
    • July 5, 2012, at 6:29 AM PDT
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  11. Underground Conservative Coolidge

    My concern is that the accrediting agencies have been private, just as the infamous credit agencies in the financial world (Moodys, etc.) Is there going to be blame placed on the private sector for this? Will the Feds just take over accreditation?

    • #11
    • July 5, 2012, at 6:48 AM PDT
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  12. John Murdoch Inactive

    There’s a very simple reason for grade inflation: money. 

    For years I was part of the college recruiting program for my employer. The people I interviewed had all been through two rounds of interviews on-campus, and had been invited to fly to corporate headquarters. I interviewed seniors and grad students in Computer Science and Software Engineering. 

    It was appalling. What brought it to a head was a pair of kids from Georgia Tech–from the Dean’s List–who clearly had never written a line of code. One could only name three data types (an 8-year-old programming Lego Mindstorms can do better than that). 

    What was going on?

    Turns out the state of Georgia has a scholarship program: you get a free ride at a state school, provided you maintain at least a 3.0 GPA. So the school, playing the hand it is dealt, makes sure that everybody gets at least a 3.0. And being located on the shores of Lake Woebegone, more than half the engineering school is on the dean’s list. 

    It’s not just Georgia–lots of states do it. Ergo, the state schools make sure everybody scores above average.

    • #12
    • July 5, 2012, at 7:02 AM PDT
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  13. Paul A. Rahe Contributor
    Paul A. Rahe Post author

    Very interesting, John Murdoch, and telling, too. When I taught at the University of Tulsa, we in Arts & Sciences made three attempts to get plus-and-minus grading instituted. Each time we were blocked by the business and engineering schools (usually with help from the law school). The reason given was that, if we had a B+ and an A-, a B- and a C+, as options, they feared that the GPAs would be lower and that their graduates would not get jobs.

    I am firmly convinced that grade inflation cannot be reversed unless the reversal is effected nationwide from the top. The accrediting agencies could do it.

    Am I right that the American Bar Association requires that law schools use a curve?

    • #13
    • July 5, 2012, at 7:46 AM PDT
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  14. Scarlet Pimpernel Member

    Beyond, or perhaps beneath this is the old problem of democracy. The democratic mind rebels against standards, as they imply inequality. 

    • #14
    • July 5, 2012, at 9:59 AM PDT
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  15. Liberty Dude Inactive

    I went to Wake Forest University. Even though it’s considered one of the better schools, the vast majority of my knowledge is a result of self-education. Looking back, I feel nothing but regret at the waste of four years of my life, with nothing to show for it but a meaningless degree. 

    My parents (graduated in the late 60s) are more than perplexed at my attitude. This disparity in opinion matches statistics showing college being viewed more negatively with younger generations. 

    Here’s one thing I despise, and I expect it’s related to the decreased workload mentioned in the essay – when you ask someone about their greatest time in college, they inevitably relate a story about being stupid whilst drunk. You do not need to pay 80-160k to be drunk and stupid.

    On the positive side, I notice a difference in the professors I see @ Hillsdale College – when I read an essay from Dr. Rahe as above, I’m filled with the respect and admiration that someone with the title of “professor” SHOULD engender. I hope the students @ Hillsdale are benefitting more from their education than I did.

    Glad you’re well.

    • #15
    • July 5, 2012, at 11:02 AM PDT
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  16. SgtDad Inactive

     I always explained what grading on a curve meant to my students on day 1 (most of them had no idea or thought it meant adding a gratuitous 10 points to their scores).

    It says something about education in America that High School graduates do not already know how this works.

    • #16
    • July 5, 2012, at 11:27 AM PDT
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  17. Valiuth Member

    I think the biggest problem is teachers at universities have just gotten lazy about making approprietly difficult exams, or setting standards. Using a curve will not solve this. Let me give you an example, from my own experience. 

    In undergrad at UIUC I took Organic Chemistry for the lab section of the class the professor teaching only had 75 different questions for the final exam. Of these he would only use 30. This was all obvious from the previous years exams which he gave to us to study from. So my friend and I spent all night before the lab final memorizing these darn questions and answers I got, 97% of the points on the final thanks to this. The final though was on a pure curve so 97% was something like an A-, had I gotten a 91% I would have been in B- territory. This was just rank laziness on the part of a professor. 

    What you need is a professor willing to make a difficult but fair exam (which is hard work), and the willingness to grade it as such. Perhaps in the humanities this is harder to do than science or math. 

    • #17
    • July 6, 2012, at 1:01 AM PDT
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  18. J. D. Fitzpatrick Member
    Valiuth: 

    What you need is a professor willing to make a difficult but fair exam (which is hard work), and the willingness to grade it as such. Perhaps in the humanities this is harder to do than science or math. · 3 minutes ago

    Not harder to do in the humanities. In English classes, for example, you give an exam that consists of the following:

    1. Quotations from texts in the course (mostly quotes that were not discussed in lecture). Student needs to identify the text and author, then write a paragraph explaining the quotation’s significance. 

    2. Essay section. Student chooses from 4-5 topics that demand knowledge of several texts and themes from throughout the course, writes essay with no assistance from notes. 

    In my experience, it’s surprisingly hard for students to do well on these tests. The ones who have mastered the material really stand out, as do the loafers. Of course, it is still a challenge to write a good exam. 

    • #18
    • July 6, 2012, at 1:28 AM PDT
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  19. J. D. Fitzpatrick Member
    Paul A. Rahe: 

    I am firmly convinced that grade inflation cannot be reversed unless the reversal is effected nationwide from the top. The accrediting agencies could do it.

    I wonder if US News and World Report could do it–simply by including a metric for “average GPA” or “grade inflation since 1960.”

    Not likely, of course; USN‘s rankings are a matter of the craven seeding the craven. 

    • #19
    • July 6, 2012, at 1:35 AM PDT
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  20. Paul A. Rahe Contributor
    Paul A. Rahe Post author
    J. D. Fitzpatrick
    Valiuth: 

    What you need is a professor willing to make a difficult but fair exam (which is hard work), and the willingness to grade it as such. Perhaps in the humanities this is harder to do than science or math. · 3 minutes ago

    Not harder to do in the humanities. In English classes, for example, you give an exam that consists of the following:

    1. Quotations from texts in the course (mostly quotes that were not discussed in lecture). Student needs to identify the text and author, then write a paragraph explaining the quotation’s significance. 

    2. Essay section. Student chooses from 4-5 topics that demand knowledge of several texts and themes from throughout the course, writes essay with no assistance from notes. 

    In my experience, it’s surprisingly hard for students to do well on these tests. The ones who have mastered the material really stand out, as do the loafers. Of course, it is still a challenge to write a good exam. · 2 hours ago

    This reflects my experience as well.

    • #20
    • July 6, 2012, at 3:14 AM PDT
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  21. Paul A. Rahe Contributor
    Paul A. Rahe Post author
    J. D. Fitzpatrick
    Paul A. Rahe: 

    I am firmly convinced that grade inflation cannot be reversed unless the reversal is effected nationwide from the top. The accrediting agencies could do it.

    I wonder ifUS News and World Reportcould do it–simply by including a metric for “average GPA” or “grade inflation since 1960.”

    Not likely, of course; USN’s rankings are a matter of the craven seeding the craven. · 2 hours ago

    Alas, this might attract students (and even parents) to the school where the GPAs are the highest.

    Some years ago, the business school at the University of Arkansas added a math requirement. I guess that someone thought that, you know, businessmen ought to be able to run a spread sheet. One-third of the business school students responded by transferring to the communications school. Need I say more?

    • #21
    • July 6, 2012, at 3:27 AM PDT
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  22. Amy Schley Moderator
    Paul A. Rahe: 

    Am I right that the American Bar Association requires that law schools use a curve? · 8 hours ago

    Law schools may be required to grade on a curve, but there is no requirement that the curve be set to a C+/B-. In fact, the more prestigious the law school, the higher the curve is set, a trend that concludes with Yale having no grades whatsoever.

    So someone going to a lower ranked law school is doubly cursed — the alma mater doesn’t open as many doors and the GPA looks worse than the person from the better ranked school, regardless of how much legal knowledge or skill he or she may have.

    • #22
    • July 6, 2012, at 3:46 AM PDT
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  23. MACHO GRANDE' (aka - Chri… Coolidge
    Paul A. Rahe

    Alas, this might attract students (and even parents) to the school where the GPAs are the highest.

    Some years ago, the business school at the University of Arkansas added a math requirement. I guess that someone thought that, you know, businessmen ought to be able to run a spread sheet. One-third of the business school students responded by transferring to the communications school. Need I say more? · 53 minutes ago

    I’m 44. I learned Excel through work, not in college, where I was a Poli Sci major (whoops). I see new hires in their early/mid-20’s at my job, with business degrees, and internship experience, and they are so marginally competent at Excel it is stunning. In my MBA coursework (done between 2007-2009), Excel is for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and if you didn’t know how to use it to at least what I would describe as an Intermediate level going in, you would be absolutely eaten alive by the coursework. 

    Which is as it should be, for a Masters. But any kid with biz degree who struggles with Excel should be fired – it’s their fault, not the college.

    • #23
    • July 6, 2012, at 4:37 AM PDT
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  24. Profile Photo Member

    What about if the class average is shown with the mark? One of my son’s schools does that and it gives a better idea of where the median lies.

    • #24
    • July 6, 2012, at 5:59 AM PDT
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