This commentary originally appeared on Forbes on May 19, 2017.
Nicki Minaj just became a higher-education philanthropist. But her well-intentioned generosity could ensnarl her in significant debt of her own. Here’s how it happened.
As reported by Avalon Zoppo on NBCNews.com, Grammy nominee Minaj announced on social media that she would pay the college tuition of one of her followers and “opened up the opportunity to others”: “Show me straight A's that I can verify with your school and I'll pay it,” wrote Minaj. “Who wants to join THAT contest?!?! Dead serious. Should I set it up?”
NBC reports that Minaj made the funding pledge to “over a dozen fans.” So long as she limits her commitment to this number, she will be able to keep some of her money for herself. But if she intends to pay the tuitions or student loans for all who can “show straight A’s,” she’s in deep trouble. Why? The answer reveals a little-known, but very dirty, secret of American education—massive grade inflation.
How massive? Consider these facts, as compiled by Stuart Rojstaczer and Christopher Healy, two university professors who have studied the history of college grading. They found that, in the early 1960s, an A was awarded in colleges nationwide 15 percent of the time. But today, an A is the most common grade given in college. Over the past half-century, the percentage of A grades has tripled, to 45 percent nationwide. Seventy-five percent of all grades awarded today are either A’s and B’s.
Arthur Levine, President of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and former president of the Teachers College at Columbia University, also has looked at grade inflation. His research confirms that of Rojstaczer and Healy. Levine finds that, in 1969, seven percent of surveyed students at two- and four-year colleges reported their grade point average was A-minus or higher. In 2009, 41 percent of students reported as much. During the same period, grades of C dropped from 25 percent to five percent.
It is no surprise, then, to learn that businesses have been complaining for some time that grade inflation has rendered transcripts less-than helpful as a means of appraising college graduates’ job applications. This decline in meaningful standards of comparison hinders the hiring process and thereby undermines the competiveness of the American workforce. For the same reason, it also hinders the ability of graduate school admissions boards to differentiate meaningfully among student transcripts.
As damaging as grade inflation is to the economy, it strikes a more lethal blow to the souls of students. As I argue here, grade inflation, at bottom, is a moral issue. It is a moral issue because it deceives not only prospective employers but, more importantly, students themselves. How? A first principle of all the world’s major religions as well as philosophies is that life is difficult. It is the task of the older generation to teach the young how to acquire the intellectual and moral strength required to deal successfully with life’s inevitable difficulties.
But grade inflation teaches young people exactly the opposite lesson. It teaches them that life is relatively easy. This cannot help but to contribute to the “coddled,” “snowflake” mindset for which so many millennials are today blamed by their elders.
I don’t blame millennials. I blame us, the older generation, which has been in charge and which was supposed to act like adults. We haven’t. Our children have suffered for it, along with the moral fiber of American society as a whole. As monetary inflation devalues the dollar, so grade inflation devalues the currency of education—student grades. Here is another disturbing sign of our “Post-Truth” epoch.
What can be done? A common-sense measure that employers used in the past was an aptitude test for job applicants. But this was ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in Griggs v. Duke Power Co. (1971). After Griggs, employers decided to rely largely on college transcripts in order to avoid lawsuits. The National Association of Colleges and Employers reported in 2013 that “66 percent of employers screen candidates by grade point average (GPA).”
A doable—and better—solution would be for schools to police themselves, and some have done just that. Columbia, Dartmouth, Indiana University, and Eastern Kentucky “contextualize” grades on transcripts. They provide the number of students in each class as well as the average grade of the class on the students’ transcripts. Indiana University places on transcripts the grade distribution for each course, the class GPA, and the average student GPA for each course.
There is in fact an immediate, nationwide solution to the grade-inflation crisis. It lies in the hands of the U.S. Department of Education. Recall the previous administration’s “Dear Colleague” letter to universities regarding sexual harassment and assault on campuses. The new administration could pen a letter of its own, requiring “contextualized” transcripts for all students from all universities receiving federal funds, which would cover all but a handful of institutions. The letter could call for adding to transcripts the average grade given to the entire class for each of the courses on a student’s transcript. Here is an example of what it would look like:
“Biology: Individual Student’s Grade: A (Average grade for the class: C+)”
This tiny transparency requirement would yield big dividends. Employers, as well as graduate admissions committees, would welcome the greater information that comes with contextualization. Students would get a truer sense of what their abilities are and where they truly stand. Transcripts would again be the signalers of accomplishment they were intended to be.
If the federal government does not act on this, at least the Texas Legislature might do it on its own. The Texas Senate recently passed a bill calling for contextualized transcripts for all Texas public, two-year and four-year colleges and universities. The House companion to the Senate bill awaits a committee hearing.
If the bill is passed, Texas’ action could have nearly the national impact of a Department of Education mandate. Texas, the second most populous state in the Union, would become the first entire state to join the previously mentioned universities as a place where transcripts mean something once again. The “Texas Transcript” could shortly come to be regarded by employers as the gold standard. Texas graduates would be taken more seriously because of it.
And Ms. Minaj’s finances could yet rest secure.