Grade Inflation or Smarter Students?
Harry Brighouse expounds on the novel argument that maybe what we’ve dubbeed “grade inflation” is really a legitimate response to increased quality of work from the students rather than a lowering of standards on the part of the professors.
Could the students really be more talented? Well, think about the Ivy League schools, which while most of them still practice affirmative action for the children of their alumnae, do it much less than they used to. It is hard to imagine, for example, even a legacy student as weak as now-President George W Bush was at the time gaining admission to Harvard or Yale or any other elite college today, as he did (to Yale, admittedly) in 1964. Nor do most top universities practice affirmative action in favour of men, as they used to (at least, not as much as they used to). In fact, the talent pool from which they can draw has expanded massively, because for a while they admitted women on an equal basis with men, and even now they only put a thumb on the scale for men so that the sex ratios aren’t too severely skewed. The “Gentleman’s C” which both the 2004 Presidential candidates were awarded by Yale in the 1960’s is reputedly a thing of the past, but that is because of the absence of the gentlemen who were awarded them.
Could the students really be better prepared? Here are some possible reasons why they might be. In the past 40 years the mean number of children born into upper middle and upper class families has declined, enabling those families to invest more in each of child; the women who are now eligible for admission have been socialized to be ambitious in academic and career terms over that time. These are also reasons for finding it plausible that students are harder working, at least at elite (top private, and top public) institutions, than they used to be.
It is not even inconceivable that they are better taught, even if it is self-serving for me to say so. The academic job market is much more open and much more competitive than it was 40 years ago, when people routinely got jobs where their friends were without open searches.
I think all that’s likely true for students at top universities, which are more selective even than they were a quarter century ago when I was entering college. On the other hand, having taught at several less prestigious institutions, I can attest to both very low student performance on basic skills such as writing as well as very high pressure from deans and the educational bureaucracy to award grades indicating acceptable performance. A much larger portion of high school students go to college now than half a century ago. And, Flynn Effect or no, we’re not producing kids who are college material at a rapidly accelerated rate.
There are also practical considerations. Untenured professors are keenly aware that their continued retention is determined, in part, by evaluations by their students. Being an easy grader improves evaluations. Further, giving good grades minimizes the time one has to devote to dealing with students coming to the office whining about their grades — or appealing to department heads and deans, who are going to be annoyed at having to deal with the complaints. That’s especially true at a research institution, where the prime goal is to find time to do productive research.
Brighouse also engages in a longish and interesting consideration of what grades are for, anyway, and argues that those who get got grades aren’t necessarily “meritorious,” merely gifted and lucky enough to be in the right environment. Undoubtedly, there are those who simply skate through based on outstanding natural talent. Most, though, still have to do the work to earn good grades. Or, at least, they would if not for grade inflation.
Photo by Flickr user Eric McFarland under Creative Commons license.