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.