Phi Beta Cons

How Universities Devalued Higher Education

An illuminating controversy erupted recently over a higher-education statistic I employed in a recent op-ed in the Austin-American Statesman. In the piece, I argued that we need strong medicine to mend ailing student-learning outcomes. To accomplish this, I argued, the Texas legislature should enact two bills. The first would require all Texas public colleges and universities to follow and expand on the example of the University of Texas System, which for eight years has been administering the Collegiate Learning Assessment to a statistically significant sample of its undergraduate students — this with the view to measuring “academic value-added,” that is, to measure how much students increased in fundamental academic skills (critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills) as the result of spending four years in college. 

It was my second recommendation that sparked doubts. I argued that, “to increase transparency and accountability further, the Legislature should require all universities to include on transcripts not only the grade the student received for each class, but also the overall average grade for the class. This would tell prospective employers whether or not a given student’s high grade-point average was the product of exceptional work or of enrolling in what today’s students call ‘Mick’ (for ‘Mickey Mouse’) courses.” 

We need such legislation, I wrote, because studies reveal that the time students spend studying has declined in the last 50 years from 24 to 14 hours a week. “Worse, grades during this period have, paradoxically, increased. Approximately 43 percent of all college grades today are A’s, an increase of 28 percentage points since 1960. Inflated grades only serve to diminish the value of a college degree.”

The claim that raised questions was my recounting a study that finds that “43 percent of all college grades today are A’s, an increase of 28 percentage points since 1960.” PolitiFact, which has a partnership with the Statesman, was contacted to test the accuracy of my statement.

The results of PolitiFact’s inquiry are a good news/bad news story. The good news (but only from the standpoint of my credibility) is that the assertion scored an unqualified “True” ranking on the column’s “Truth-o-Meter.” To arrive at its judgment, PolitiFact conducted a thorough, professional investigation, questioning a half-dozen sources, chief among them the authors of the grade-inflation study that formed the basis for my claim: Professors Stuart Rojstaczer and Christopher Healy. The two academics also explained the basis their findings that, in the 1960s, roughly 15 percent of all college grades were A’s. Unless one wants to claim that students are so much wiser today as to merit the near-tripling of the A’s given a half-century prior, grade inflation is the only explanation left.

The bad news? It’s the same as the good, and infinitely more important: My assertion regarding grade inflation scored an unqualified “True” ranking.

These now-verified facts constitute the rationale for my recommendations to the Texas legislature. The good news here is that last week the “CLA Bill” was filed in the Senate (SB 436), and the “Transparency in Student Transcripts Bill” will soon follow in the House. 

My hope is that Politifact’s vindication of my claim will lead to a sober evaluation — in both the legislature and, more important, among the public at large — of the seeming madness currently reigning in grading standards. Such an evaluation may already be beginning to happen. I continue to hear nearly daily from both legislators and citizens about the study. As one recent graduate told me yesterday after reading the PolitiFact piece, “I’m angry. My parents and I spent a lot of real money, in exchange for monopoly-money grades.”

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