Magazine | April 22, 2013, Issue

Higher Education Revalued

Texas considers a proposal to reverse grade inflation

Grade inflation is real, rampant, and ravaging a university near you. It would be a scandal if more people knew about it.

A bill filed in March in the Texas legislature looks to ensure that more do. Called “Honest Transcript,” it is a model of brevity, at only a little more than 300 words. Yet its sponsors expect it to shake up higher education in the state and beyond. They believe that when the public gets wind of higher education’s widespread grade-inflating practices, it will put a stop to them. Others, less hopeful, think that public transparency will merely reveal public indifference.

The bill would require all public colleges and universities to include on student transcripts, alongside the individual student’s grade, the average grade for the entire class. This would help potential employers determine whether a high grade-point average signified talent and achievement or merely revealed that the student had taken easy courses.

The Honest Transcript bill was introduced in the Texas house by Republican Scott Turner, a freshman representative and former NFL cornerback (Redskins, Chargers, Broncos), and in the state senate by veteran Republican Dan Patrick. Supporters argue that its modest transparency requirement would show how grade inflation has severely degraded the significance of college degrees.

A half-century of grade inflation has been demonstrated repeatedly by national studies. Today, an A is the most common grade given in college — 43 percent of all grades, as opposed to 15 percent in the 1960s, according to Stuart Rojstaczer, formerly of Duke, and Christopher Healy, of Furman, who conducted a 50-year survey of grading. Arthur Levine, president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, has also studied the trajectory of college grades. He finds that in 1969, 7 percent of two- and four-year college students said their GPA was an A-minus or higher; by 2009, 41 percent of students did. Having been either a college student, a professor, or an administrator for nearly 30 years, I am not surprised by such findings. Nor, I suspect, is anyone else in the academy. And neither are employers. People who make hiring decisions here in Texas complain to me that grade inflation makes it virtually impossible to rank job applicants accurately, because nearly all have A or B averages.

It gets worse. A 2011 national study published as the book Academically Adrift, by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, found that our puffed-up prodigies are learning much too little. Thirty-six percent of the students it surveyed show little or no increase in their ability for critical thinking, complex reasoning, and clear writing after four years of college. Small wonder that employers are frustrated, with the annual parade of impressive transcripts hiding empty heads.

Employer concerns notwithstanding, universities have a higher calling than simply preparing future workers. Almost all of them proclaim in their mission statements that they seek to enhance their students’ capacity for independent thought. In undermining this, their noblest calling (which harkens back to Socrates’ declaration that “the unexamined life is not worth living”), grade inflation is especially harmful: It eats away at the essence and morale of an academic institution. For Rojstaczer and Healy, “when college students perceive that the average grade in a class will be an A, they do not try to excel. It is likely that the decline in student study hours, student engagement, and literacy are partly the result of diminished academic expectations.”

This, then, is the academic reality whose veil the bill would lift: Too many students are learning too little, yet their grades have never been so high.

#page#Will Texas universities oppose transcript transparency? It’s hard to imagine a principled basis for resistance, since universities are defined by the pursuit of knowledge and its dissemination to students and the larger society. Nevertheless, one university has complained to Representative Turner that the bill would create “processing difficulties in the Registrar’s office.”

This objection comes too late, for such “processing” is now the norm. Recently, through services such as MyEdu.com and internal school websites, students have been able to sift through the grading histories of professors. MyEdu proclaims that it “works directly with universities to post their official grade records, including average GPA and drop rates. Yes, really — these are the official grade records straight from your university.” It boasts a membership of over 800 schools and more than 5 million students. Its reach in Texas extends to nearly every public college and university.

One major concern for almost everyone involved with higher education is low graduation rates. Nationally, about half of entering students do not complete college; most of those who do finish take longer than four years, which hikes the cost of their degrees. Those who fail to graduate do not fail to acquire student-loan debt, which, lacking a degree, they often find hard to repay. National student-loan debt is approaching $1 trillion and now exceeds total credit-card debt for the first time. Sixteen states have adopted or are considering “outcomes-based funding,” through which a portion of state higher-education appropriations are awarded to schools based on certain metrics, including improved graduation, retention, and completion rates.

MyEdu has many tools that can help students graduate, but some argue that it also contributes to a grade-shopping ethos. The Austin American-Statesman notes critics who slam the site “for pandering to students interested primarily in using it to identify faculty members who reliably give high grades. A UT-Austin student survey conducted last year confirmed most students used the site to check professors’ grade distributions.”

Linking grade inflation to such sites ignores the fact that grading standards have been progressively watered down since the early ’60s, while MyEdu is relatively new to the scene. Lax university standards and old-fashioned word-of-mouth had already proven quite effective at inflating grades. Blaming transparency for grade inflation is like blaming a blemish on your mirror. If critics are correct that grading-history sites facilitate grade-shopping, however, the Honest Transcript bill could balance the access already available to students with equal access to parents and employers. The result, they hope, will be the unmasking of higher education’s pretensions.

Honest Transcript’s sponsors also hope that transparency will encourage prospective students and parents who truly care about education to avoid the majors with the easiest grading. But that’s not likely, say Arum and Roksa in Academically Adrift. Criteria other than academic standards, such as “student residential and social life,” likely drive students’ decisions, as does “the ability with relatively modest investments of effort to earn a credential” for a job. Why make things harder with a GPA-reducing return to former standards?

Such doubts transcend the current debate. Discussing property, Aristotle cautions that “the nature of desire is without limit, and it is with a view to satisfying this that the many live.” Easy grades in vapid courses are a result of the effort to satisfy that desire. The proponents of Honest Transcript aim, in a small way, to turn the many toward something nobler, and their effort may have implications well beyond Texas.

Mr. Lindsay is the director of the Center for Higher Education at the Texas Public Policy Foundation and a former deputy chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. He is the author, with Gary Glenn, of the recently published book Investigating American Democracy.

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