This commentary originally appeared in Forbes on March 2, 2015.
As Texas, the nation’s second largest state, moves through its biennial legislative session, a simple, short transparency bill has been proposed in both houses that would lift the veil hiding a little-known but nonetheless devastating crisis in higher education—grade inflation.
Over the past five decades, grade inflation has been quietly ravaging our universities, debasing academic standards and undermining morale. The national statistics indicate the severity of the crisis. According to Stuart Rojstaczer and Christopher Healy’s national, longitudinal studies, in the early 1960s, 15 percent of all college grades nationwide were A’s. Today, that number has nearly tripled—43 percent of all grades are A’s. In fact, an A is now the most common grade given in college nationwide. Moreover, seventy-three percent of all college grades nationwide today are either A’s or B’s. Why?
A number of factors account for the diminution in standards. Research performed by Texas A&M professor Valen Johnson demonstrates that students reward easier-grading professors with better teacher evaluations, which are crucial in deciding faculty tenure, promotion, and salary—thus setting into motion a toxic feedback loop described by Indiana University professor, Murray Sperber, who terms it the faculty-student “non-aggression pact”: ”I won’t bother you and you don’t bother me, and we’ll all be happy here at college.”
Less happy are employers, and for good reason. As monetary inflation devalues the dollar, grade inflation debases the currency of education: student transcripts. Consequently, employers regularly complain that transcripts have become less-than-reliable indicators of genuine academic achievement. When a plethora of new graduates appear every year at job interviews sporting sterling transcripts, how is one to tell the real A’s from the inflated ones?
As bad as grade inflation is for America’s workforce competitiveness, still worse is its effect on the souls of today’s students. At the deepest level, grade inflation is a moral issue. Why? Because it deceives students. How? One of the fundamental truths of existence, concurred in by all the world’s major religions and philosophers, is that life is difficult. Further, it is only through cultivating excellence of mind and character that we can learn to deal with life’s inevitable difficulties.
But grade inflation teaches our students exactly the opposite lesson. It teaches them that, with minimal effort, they can (and, in time, some come to believe that they should) receive high grades. The result? New graduates, still sloshed from years of imbibing the heady brew of easy A’s, are frequently floored on their entry into the working world, where results matter, and where “participation” alone is no guarantee of promotions or even of continued employment.
To be sure, this is not a problem that resides only in higher education. “Participation” trophies at the K-12 level, along with all the other measures developed since the ‘70s to enhance the young’s “self-esteem,” have played a role in jettisoning the rigor required of a sound education at all levels.
College grade inflation has been found to be most virulent in the humanities, whereas the natural sciences and mathematics have better maintained their standards. As a result, studies reveal that grade inflation disincentivizes students from majoring in the sciences and mathematics—at the same time that the country cries out for more STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) graduates.
Given the severity of the crisis in college grading standards, it is understandable that Texas legislators would look to attempt to address it at their state’s public universities. In this rescue mission they are not alone. A study conducted by the Samford University Office of Institutional Research finds that “Columbia, Dartmouth, Indiana, and Eastern Kentucky are examples of schools that provide the number of students in each class and the average grade of the class on the students’ transcripts.” At Indiana University, for example, transcripts include the grade distribution for each course and the average student GPA (grade point average) in the course. The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill recently agreed to implement a similar measure, which it calls “contextual grading,” in which the GPA for the entire class is included next to the letter grade each student receives for every class. The University of California at Berkeley is currently looking at similar measures.
Is this is an idea whose time has come? Given the size of its population, as well as its prominence on the national stage, Texas could play a, if not the, key role in answering the question. Texas House Bill 1196, along with its identical companion, Senate Bill 499, would require “Open” or “Honest Transcripts” of all Texas public universities. Similar to some of the measures described immediately above, the bill would require schools to “place the average or median grade, as applicable, immediately to the right of the student’s individual grade” on official transcripts.
Short and simple, the transparency bill stands out in an age of 1000-page federal laws. Moreover, the bill avoids seeking to micromanage the state’s institutions of higher education. It does not require them to do anything differently, but only to make transparent to students, their parents, and employers what it is that they are doing. Given that these are public institutions established and supported by tax dollars, this hardly seems to be an unreasonable request. It asks only that students, their parents, and taxpayers be informed of what they are getting for their tuition and tax dollars.
But would the law have its intended effect? That is, would it aid in arresting the crisis that is grade inflation? Only time will tell. But one thing the bill would do immediately is to make clear to all the scandal that has engulfed our universities and, in so doing, begin to build public support to restore sound standards. At the least, the larger culture would be alerted to those schools and majors that have maintained standards and those that have not. And would-be employers, along with graduate school admissions committees, would stand a better chance of distinguishing truly excellent graduates from those who have taken courses and majors with lax standards.
Supporters of the bill argue that something more could also occur as a direct result of passage of the bill. What would quickly come to be known nationally as the “Texas Transcript” could come to be regarded as the gold standard of collegiate reporting. Texas students, they argue, would immediately be given a leg up in the job market versus applicants from other states lacking transcript transparency. If this turns out to be the case, Texas could well spark transcript-transparency movements in the other 49 states, which would feel compelled to follow Texas’s example—if only to enhance their own college graduates’ job prospects in the face of the new challenge from the Lone Star State.
If such competition among the states over grading rigor occurred, everyone would win, most importantly, the students themselves, who would benefit from the ennobling experience of being tried and tested in learning institutions that have rediscovered their souls—and their spines.