Grade Inflation: On the bubble

Posted: May 10, 2003 12:00 AM

In the heady days of the late 20th century, the best way to get ahead was to slap a dot-com after your name. Internet start-ups were all the rage, and with the stock market surging, they seemed headed for a brilliant future.

 For example, raised almost $120 million of venture capital in 1999. went public in February 2000, and pocketed $76 million on its first day of trading.

But when the high-tech bubble burst, investors quickly learned which companies enjoyed real value and which were empty shells. By September 2000, and dozens of other Internet companies were out of business.

 This month, tens of thousands of students will graduate from America’s leading colleges and universities. After four years -- or sometimes more -- at Duke, Harvard, Stanford, Yale, etc. they, too, seem headed toward a brilliant future.

 But in fact, they may also be on the edge of a bubble that’s about to explode. Because their expensive degrees may be meaningless.

 Professor Stuart Rojstaczer explained why earlier this year in a Washington Post op-ed. “I recently handed in my grades for an undergraduate course I teach at Duke University.  There were no C's of any flavor and certainly no D's or F's. It was a good class, but even when classes aren't very good, I just drop down slightly, to grades that range from A-minus to B-minus.

 “The last time I gave a C was more than two years ago.”

 Rojstaczer blames the free market for the widespread practice of grade inflation. “Given that students are consumers of an educational product for which they pay dearly, I am expected to cater to their desires… So I don't give C's anymore, and neither do most of my colleagues. And I can easily imagine a time when I'll say the same thing about B's.”

 Of course, when most students are making A’s -- and more than half of all grades at Duke, Harvard and Columbia are A’s -- making an A becomes meaningless. So, eventually, the degree awarded based on those phantom A’s becomes meaningless, as well.

 But there are still schools where teachers demand excellence before they hand out excellent grades. As one instructor tells his students, “Merely meeting the minimum requirements on an assignment does not earn an A. An A is a grade earned by excellence; for that matter, even a B means above average. Meeting minimum requirements is solidly an average thing to do, the range of a C.”

 Seeing such a statement in a syllabus would probably send the undergrads at Duke running for the door. As Rojstaczer says, “If I sprinkle my classroom with the C's some students deserve, my class will suffer from declining enrollments in future years.”

 But students at Columbus State Community College in Ohio do accept such warnings.

 As a friend there points out, he and his fellow instructors “know we do no favors by discouraging hard work, especially with the low socioeconomic status of our students. Many choose to be in our classes because they're living lousy lives and want to do better. That kind of motivation is something to encourage. And for those who are unmotivated, well, they're the ones who end up with the C’s, D’s and E’s.”

 In other words, it’s the wealthier students (and their parents) in the expensive schools who believe they’re entitled to four years of high grades for simply getting in. Meanwhile poorer students at less expensive schools realize they’re supposed to work -- and learn -- for their high grades. And those poorer students are willing to accept the fact that if they don’t do the work, they’ll suffer the consequences.

 Attention, students at premier four-year universities: There’s pressure building from below. If employers start to realize that your straight-A average is based on smoke and mirrors, while the A’s earned at community colleges are legitimate, you’re in trouble. That bright future you see now may end up like an exploding star or a dot-com -- brilliant for a moment, then gone forever.