Published in the Mobile (Alabama) Register (March 22, 1998): p 1D, 4D
Herbert Jack Rotfeld
Department of Marketing
Auburn University, Alabama

In the suburban schools of my youth, we looked upon the nearby Chicago education system with disdain, confident that our graduations would be a mark of education while theirs were not. Auto shop or physical education didn't count for our grade point averages and we needed to have acceptable grades in a collection of academic classes at every stage of our education. In the city schools, with many high school students "majoring" in hair dressing, auto shop or desk-sleeping, their students were often granted "social promotions" for every grade, a system-wide emphasis on keeping students with age cohorts instead of making certain they learned basic academic material before moving to the next class level.

In 1997, Chicago schools brought an end all social promotions, requiring exams at various stages for students to move forward. Yet many universities practice those same social promotions. In higher education the waiving of standards is not as overt or widespread, but it exists and many faculty feel it is growing, especially as many state legislators, parents and school administrators express an primary concern that students be able to graduate "on time."

Administrators at all levels possess and are known to use their power and authority to waive program requirements, course prerequisites and registration limits, all so students can graduate "on time." An often repeated administrative refrain is students must be able to graduate in a designated period, the ineluctable impression is that time will be more important than education. It implies that a student acquires the learning experience necessary for future success by contagion regardless of performance. In the high schools with social promotions, the graduates are often illiterate. In college, they can't be much better, possessing the thinking abilities of squirrels.

And therein lies the problem. No one would argue that undergraduate programs and academic plans should be unduly dragged out, yet there exist many reasons why students take more than four years to graduate. Due to jobs or other responsibilities, many modern students are unable to take a full course load of demanding classes every term. Due to either laziness or the encouragement of over-protective parents, others want to minimize the work they do during any one quarter or semester. Sometimes due to personal distractions of jobs, illness, family problems or parties, various students are sometimes unable to pass key courses in sequence for completing a program. And some students are cerebral-challenged, thereby requiring more time to understand the material and pass key classes in a program.

Placing a request for stories of administrators capriciously waiving academic requirements on some internet bulletin boards brought a wave of examples. One was tied to a starter on a major sports team. A few others were favors for the child of a major donor or a relative of a Board of Trustees member. But most commonly, the dean, provost or even the president was concerned that the student be able to graduate on the date originally planned. Faculty might try to disavow the graduate, but the administration proudly bestowed a degree.

And many examples were tied to grades. 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." Deans, provosts and even university presidents at many colleges and universities have been known to waive academic requirements to facilitate a "timely" graduation.

Such waivers are clearest when applied to a course or program's grades requirements. Grades are used as part of college's internal standards, 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. At one time, the catalogs at every university said that a grade of C means "average," but 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 increasing number of universities or programs 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 some assert that a university with tough grade standards hurts its students on the job market. But employers are not idiots. They could readily recognize a program whose B+ graduates exhibit on-the-job insight of a hamster; they know which schools have "above average" or "B" grades as a mark of accomplishment. In the long run, it hurts a university more to give many high grades to average (or worse) students.

But grade inflation is not just caused by faculty members wanting to be nice. It avoids problems. To fail students, for whatever reason, or even to award more C grades, causes a faculty member to spend time fighting complaints.

With increasing frequency, if a grade is seen as low, the student complains. The student may be lazy, stupid 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!" The faculty member then hears from the dean on a grade complaint. And these are the "nicer" students, since others compel us to start checking the back seat of the car before getting in to go home.

It is news to no one that too 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 dare 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."

For the faculty, at the end of every term there are the students' teacher evaluations by which the students 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, these data of questionable validity supplant all other forms of information on teaching performance. These rating scores consistently state who the students like, but such liking does not mean they are learning.

At best, students assess teachers by how well they think they have been taught what the unknowing students think they will need to know in the future (long before they really in a position to know what they need or why). But aside from questions of whether students are capable of making these assessments, faculty know that many students see these forms as a time for revenge. It is their time to get back at the teacher who dared to make students work for grades. If the material was difficult, the readings were too boring or the teacher graded on grammar, the students "Pearl Harbor" the instructor.

These student attitudes and expectations help engender decreasing expectations on the part of the faculty. Grade inflation should not be a surprise to anyone. Since these student views are often supported by administrators, the real surprise is that there remain any pockets of resistance to the trend.

A department chair once told me that "We need to get enrollments in [his] program up to 400, 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.

Exacerbating the incentives to pander, some university administrators actively encourage faculty to give higher grades. I have seen memos from deans, associate deans or even vice-presidents at different universities telling faculty members that they may not fail students. At some schools, department heads are directed to "investigate" all classes and teachers that have "too many" D and F grades. 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 and "not enough" A and B marks. "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.

If the university is really concerned about standards, it should focus on fighting grade inflation and supporting faculty against pressures to lower academic standards in the classroom. As many students complain about a low grade, administrators should not be placing the faculty member on trial.

Standards exist for a reason and if a someone does not graduate within a certain period, the fault often lies with the student. As primary and high schools abolish their social promotion systems, universities should not move their variant onto campus. Universities should want graduation to be a sign of intellectual development, not years of existence, so their goal should be for students to graduate educated, not "on time."