The College transcript as confetti


Yes, many college degrees are worthless, but even among those supposed fields where a degree is of value, there’s an issue that I only touch on from time to time: grade inflation.

Suppose you’re an employer, and you’ve already restricted applicants to some very job-specific degree. Can you narrow it down further than that? Well, there’s GPA, but when everybody always gets the same grades…not only can you not distinguish between candidates, the obvious question must come to mind: “if everybody gets an A, what does this degree stand for?”

Employers have known of this issue for some time, but not that long:

The ‘Other’ College Scandal: Grade Inflation Has Turned Transcripts into Monopoly Money

–all paper currencies become “Monopoly money” eventually, so I usually use the word “confetti” to get across the same point.

They’re not just talking about degrees in Theatre, Communications, or Gender Studies here, but “real” majors have also lost value because you really can’t give a bad grade without risk.

The National Association of Colleges and Employers reported in 2013 that “66 percent of employers screen candidates by grade point average (GPA).”

Wow, even 6 years ago employers were trying to use GPA for something. I honestly don’t know how they could:

Consider these facts: A 50-plus-year nationwide study of the history of college grading finds that, in the early 1960s, an A grade was awarded in colleges nationwide 15 percent of the time. But today, an A is the most common grade given in college; the percentage of A grades has tripled, to 45 percent nationwide. Seventy-five percent of all grades awarded now are either A’s and B’s.

Please understand that we have plenty of write-off students on campus. When the above says “75%” of grades are A’s and B’s, I assure the gentle reader that pretty much any student who tries will get such grades, and while a few students who never even come to class will also get a good grade (roughly 1/3 at a community college) the vast bulk of those “bad” grades go to students who can’t be bothered to even show up the first day of class.

In case the gentle reader wonders why, allow me to explain. A student complaint is bad for a faculty member’s career…multiple complaints can be a career ender (two can be enough to ruin a chance at tenure).

In 30 years of teaching, the only students who ever complained about me were failing students, and I’m hardly alone in making this observation. So, the message is clear: do not fail students.

Trouble is, a failing grade is no longer an F. Because D grades are so rare now, D’s are also failing grades, so you can’t give those (anyone else remembered Charlie Brown getting a D-, basically a pity grade?). But now C’s become rare…it really won’t be long until awarding a B grade will run the risk of multiple administrators at your door, asking you to justify why you showed such aggression against a student.

Seriously, if 95% of college graduates have all A’s and B’s, you know full well you’re really hurting a student when you award a C. But we still push the fiction that C is an average grade, even as we all know 95% of all students can’t be above average.

When an A is the most common grade given in college, how hard is it to graduate?

The article took its time to identify the problem I identified at the beginning of my post. It does provide some history on grading to put things into perspective:

in 1969, only 7 percent of students at two- and four-year colleges reported that their grade point average was A-minus or higher. Yet in 2009, 41 percent of students reported as same. During the same period, the percentage of C grades given dropped from 25 to five percent.

So basically only one student in 20 is getting a C grade. Yeah, that’s “average.” I’m not a jerk, I’d love for every student to be the best…but I know that awarding A’s to everyone is hurting the top students far more than it’s helping the weakest students. College was supposed to be an opportunity to distinguish yourself but there’s no way to do that when everyone gets the same grade.

The article presents a different problem with grade inflation:

But grade inflation teaches young people the opposite lesson. It teaches them that life is easy. This cannot help but to contribute to the coddled, “snowflake” mindset for which so many millennials are today blamed by their elders.

Eh, I concede some truth in the above, and I’ll even share a quick anecdote:

“I want my money back.”

The above was a complaint by a student in my college algebra course, a course little different than what I learned in the 10th grade. The student didn’t buy the book, came to class only sporadically, didn’t submit any homework assignments (no book, after all), and missed half the tests (failing the others with grades of 39 and 25 respectively, because…no book). As per my syllabus and any reasonable consideration, I failed her.

I remember this student because she then complained to admin, who asked me to justify in detail why I dared to fail a student who was “concerned about her grade,” to quote the written complaint which may still be in my permanent record at that community college.

So, sure, I suppose you could call her a snowflake, but I think money is the issue. The article goes off the rails, however:

…the older generation—my generation—which has been in charge and which was supposed to act like adults? We haven’t. Our children are paying for our moral and educational lapse, which also is fraying the moral fiber of American society as a whole.

No, the above is rubbish. It’s not the older generation which has caused this. It’s the student loan scam (I trust the gentle reader was sitting down when reading that, because it’s so rare that I make such a claim that my doing so might cause fainting).

The student loan scam has caused tuition to skyrocket to ridiculous levels, and this in turn is affecting our grading (with administrative pressure, supplied also by the student loan scam).

If you spent $10 to see a movie, and the movie was terrible, you might well write it off as a loss. How about $500? $5,000? For that kind of money, you’d complain bitterly to management if you didn’t receive an incredible experience.

Well, suppose you’re spending a mere $3,000, the low end price of a college course today. You’re going to want the best possible outcome there, right? An F is unacceptable…and an A is really what you want for that kind of cash. No need to point fingers at a whole generation when simple economics explains what’s happening.

Under legislation proposed in the House of Representatives, the Texas “Contextualized Transcript” bill calls for adding to transcripts the average grade given to the entire class for each of the courses on a student’s transcript. This would apply to all Texas public, two-year and four-year colleges and universities. Here is an example of what it would look like:

“Geology: Individual Student’s Grade: A (Average grade for the class: C+)”

The above is all hypothetical, more accurately, pure fantasy. Granted, schools that did something like the above would demonstrate integrity, and that would help students dramatically…too bad our schools are not run with concepts like “integrity” or “helping students” in mind.

They used to be run in that manner, but the immense money from the student loan scam makes those antiquated concepts. While the media screams about a few rich people buying their way into Harvard and the like, realize student loan debt is close to $1.6 trillion, and affects fifty million people in this country, if not more…a few kids sneaking into Harvard means nothing next to that, and the grade inflation hurts everyone in any event.