In the suburban schools of my youth, we looked upon the nearby city's education system with disdain, confident that our graduations would be a mark of education while theirs were not. We needed to pass a collection of academic classes at every stage of our education, while many city schools practiced what they called "social promotions," placing emphasis on keeping students with age cohorts instead of making certain they learned basic academic material before moving to the next class or grade.
In 1997, that city started to end all social promotions, requiring exams at various stages for students to move to the next level. Yet many universities are now practicing those same social promotions. The waiving of performance standards is not as overt or widespread in higher education, but it exists and many faculty feel it is growing.
Placing a request on internet bulletin boards for stories of administrators waiving academic requirements generated only one example that was tied to a starter on a major sports team. Of the countless other examples, sometimes it was granting a favor for the child of a major donor or of a member of the school's board of trustees. But most commonly, the dean, provost or president was concerned that the student be able to graduate "on time." Grades were changed, scores were altered or failing marks were ignored. Students with low performance in prerequisite classes were allowed to take the capstone course if they had attended enough classes or "tried."
Grades are a major part of a college's internal standards, often listed as part of course prerequisites or for entrance into upper-level programs. Students must now maintain a C (or higher) average to take many required courses, to declare a major and, once declared, to remain in the college. A certain grade average is usually needed to retain scholarship funding.
At one time, the catalogs at every university said that a grade of C means "average." Many no longer do this, since they know that "average" grades are much higher. Social promotions are not just involved in the granting of degrees, but the increasing number of universities or programs that try to say all their graduates are "above average."
Students and many faculty believe that grades are a major factor in the job market, so they assert that tough grade standards hurts students on the job market. But employers are not idiots and readily recognize a program whose B+ graduates are dimwits. In the long run, it hurts a university more to give high grades to many below average students.
Yet grade inflation is not simply caused by faculty members or administrators wanting to be nice. It avoids problems. To fail students, for whatever reason, or even to award more C grades, causes university personnel to spend time fighting complaints.
With increasing frequency, if a grade is seen as low, the student complains. The student may be lazy, stupid, marginally illiterate or just have a problem with that course's material, but anything lower than what a student desires will engender complaints. Everyone in higher education has had the student who cuts classes, rejects entreaties to come to the office for help and, after dismally failing the final exam, snarls to the teacher "You're making me stay in school an extra term," then making a grade complaint to the dean or department head.
It is news to no one that many students seem to live by the motto "I am ignorant and proud of it." Yet at the same time, as phrased by University of Pennsylvania writing teacher David Slavitt, few faculty members would ever wish to simply state to a student even in those many cases when it is often painfully obvious: "You're dumb, you're young and you're wrong."
Because there are the students' teacher evaluations. At the end of the term, students also state how they would grade the teacher, generating scores that are used to decide which teachers are retained or get tenure and which senior faculty get top pay raises, in many instances supplanting all other forms of data on teaching performance. While research might show that the student rating scores are "reliable," extensive discussion of their use in several articles in the September/October 1997 issue of Change magazine illustrated strong doubts of their validity on measuring a teacher's job performance. More important, aside from questions of whether students are capable of making these assessments, faculty know that many students see these forms as a time for their revenge.
Grade inflation should not be a surprise to anyone. What might be surprising is that there remain any pockets of resistance to the trend. Exacerbating the incentives to pander, some university administrators refuse to support faculty standards and actively encourage faculty to give higher grades.
A department chair told one of his faculty members at a major university that "We need to get enrollments up and then we can start to worry about entrance requirements and program quality." Similarly, in the book Generation X Goes to College, the author watched faculty members' enthusiasm and interest for his ad hoc committee on standards and quality die when faced with potential problems of declining enrollments at the unnamed college, especially with concomitant drives by administrators for all students to be kept happy.
I have seen memos from deans or vice-presidents at different universities telling faculty that they may not fail students. Moving from one school to another whose incoming students possessed equivalent backgrounds and abilities (as measured by admission requirements), an award winning teacher at the first school was called on the carpet by the provost at the second for giving "too many" C grades. "We have a bunch of dummies here," the provost reportedly said, "so we want to give them the grades they want and get them out."
Under these conditions, the university is not a bastion of academic quality, or even intellectual integrity.
University should want graduation to be a sign of intellectual development, not years of existence. Standards exist for a reason and the goal should not be for students to graduate "on time." As primary and high schools abolish their social promotion systems, universities should not move their variant onto campus.