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Grade Inflation

Inside Higher Ed reports that,

Since the 1960s, the national mean G.P.A. at the institutions from which he’s collected grades has risen by about 0.1 each decade – other than in the 1970s, when G.P.A.s stagnated or fell slightly. In the 1950s, according to Rojstaczer’s data, the mean G.P.A. at U.S. colleges and universities was 2.52. By 2006-07, it was 3.11.

I hold a view that much of what happens in colleges is pure signaling. In other words, college is an activity that is used by students to “signal” to prospective employers and future advanced schools that they are of high quality. This is in opposition to the view that college is productive. In other words, the productivity (the classical human capital view) is that each year of schooling you obtain improves your ability to be productive, and this is the reason college graduates earn more than college non-graduates. Neither extreme view, of course, is correct – there is surely a mix of each going on.

The problem for “society” if the signaling view happens to be true is that signaling is socially wasteful. It takes lots of time and resources to produce a college education and students (in addition to spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to attend) lose at least 4 years of earnings and work experience. You might say that the lost earnings don’t amount to much, since we are losing 4 years of low earnings as an 18, 19, 20 and 21 year old. But that would not be right. We are also losing 4 years of experience and we are shortening our working lives by 4 full years. In other words, our earnings at the end of our working lives is much higher than our earnings at the beginning – so we are really lopping off 4 years of our most productive times by going to college. Taken together, if all the college signal does is tell employers that “I am good” then any resources spent acquiring such a signal are wasteful since the signal itself does not make you more productive.

As a brief aside, it should astonish you that there are not myriad creative ways for potential firms to ascertain how productive high school graduates are likely to be. One reason is that certain forms of testing by employers has been deemed illegal as a result of the Griggs v. Duke Power case. There are many other reasons, but that is for another day to explore.

What does this have to do with grade inflation? In a world of signaling, college grades are an additional gradient employers could use to determine who was likely to be productive – over and above the fact that you completed college. If grades are uniformly inflating, then it has to be the case that the information in the “college graduated” signal is diluted. This makes the social waste of college bigger – and in fact one can make a strong case that rather than subsidizing college, we ought to heavily TAX it. Remind this to the folks that think taxes should be a fix to other economic problems.

Remember too, that Chancellor Obama believes that all Americans should obtain some college education. Why? Has he deeply studied the economics of human capital? Does he know the extent that college is a signal or not? In a world where college is much more signal value than productivity enhancing, to argue that everyone ought to go to college in a world where college is merely a signal is an extremely wasteful use of society’s resources. It would be the same as mandating that every athlete use performance enhancing drugs.  Maybe that is the objective? Anyway, in a world where grades are being inflated, Obama’s education push makes even less sense.

By the way, the economics department here at U of R is thought to be one of the toughest grading departments on campus. Students often make choices about what to study based on how easy it is to obtain a high grade. Maybe if we cared about economic literacy, we would turn all of our economics courses into guts, and give people an A simply by showing up to our courses? For many reasons that would be an horrendous idea. As it stands, even with people getting grades that actually reflect the amount of economics they know, they parade around proudly flaunting their economic ignorance when they support proposals to end NAFTA, bail out the car companies, raise taxes on the rich, increase the powers of the FDA – far be it for me to tell students (by giving them easy As) that they actually know what they are supporting.

I teach 5 courses here regularly, plus an informal seminar or two, and I direct a large number of independent study projects each year. Overall, the average grade I give (and the median) is about a 3.0. In my principles class, the average is closer to a 2.8. In my more “difficult” upper level classes, it is closer to a 3.1. Perhaps needless to say, these are the lower bounds for average grades “I could get away with.” My raw grade distributions, based on exams that attempt to see exactly how much students know, suggest that my averages, across the board, should be about 0.5 points lower. If I did that, of course, we would lose half of our majors. Not that anyone has spoken to me directly about such a thing …

3 Responses to “Grade Inflation”

  1. Michael says:

    I’m finding that college is a pretty weak signal anymore; the supply of college graduates is high and the quality of college education can be very sad. I was rather surprised at how easy college was, even though I was supposed to be at a higher quality institution. Now I think its moving up to a masters degree in a related field. Military service is still a decent signal, which might be interesting to consider the implications of the recent conflicts (and I think the number of recruits have gone up). Other signals I’m dealing with are internships, publications, and certifications (like SAS). Unfortunately, most jobs I’ve seen would still rather have X years of experience, probably the best signal.

  2. Harry says:

    I started out being a tough grader when I taught school. I followed the lead of my department head, who got his degree from the University of Wales. He had the full support of the Headmaster, who was beholden to the market, parents who wanted their children to learn. This atmosphere was consistent with my experience.

    The only pressure I ever felt from giving an F, as opposed to a D, was from me — doubting whether I had done enough. But I was never pressured to give a B to average work.

    One day in the Spring of 1983, outside of Oglivy & Mather’s office on 48th street, as we were getting into a limousine to take us to the airport, a former student caught me. He was dressed for buisness, and may have been bound for O&M, to make a big pitch.

    He said, “Mr. —, sir, I have to thank you for everything you taught me.”

    Now, this is every teacher’s dream, but I knew what he really meant, because I remembered his class. They were smart, but I was relentless. Nobody got an A or a B without earning it.

    A signifigant portion of the credit goes to the school, which supported me.

    Fast forward to my teaching at an esteemed university near my home. My standards while teaching had not changed, I was given a clear message often that I’d better ease up on the grades,not just for football players, but since I was teaching Juniors and Seniors, don’t spoil their chances for graduate school.

    I bet Wintercow wishes his perfessers had given him an easy time getting B’s or A’s because he could carry the ball.

    It depends on whether the school will stand for standards, and whether they will support those who teach. It depends on whether the faculty, and those who lead them to have standards.

    My observation is that too many who teach believe that there are no standards, and that standards are bad. This gives them the power, in the Nietschean sense, to write their own.

    Is it any surprise there is grade inflation, as long as students do not disagree with their valueless teachers?

  3. Sean says:

    I have taught high school since 1980. The grades are inflated. There is a considerable amount of pressure from the administration for me to “give” more “A’s” and “B’s” to my students. As a matter of fact a former counselor at the high school encouraged soon to be seniors to avoid my class. Take someone else, go to summer school, night school, etc. ” His class is just too hard.”
    The parents, the government, society are all calling for a better educated populist. The only problem is, no one is willing to work for it anymore. We all believe there is an entitlement to a high school diploma. They should be given out like Easter candy.
    It is not just high school, I see people leaving college to teach not knowing their subject and in reality, not wanting to learning the material. They can’t teach and because some are in courses in which there is a shortage, ( math/science) the superintendent is hesitant in removing them from their post. They increase grade inflation because instead of exposing their glaring weaknesses, they grant “A’s” making the parents and students happy.
    I will be eligible to retire at Christmas. There is going to be a change in curriculum in this coming year. It seems the present curriculum is too difficult, so there will be an easier one in the ’10-’11 school year.

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