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College grade inflation means B is the new C+

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Posted at 6:17 PM, Feb 19, 2015
and last updated 2015-02-20 17:42:21-05

A group of soon-to-graduate students approached Barbara B. Holdcroft, then an associate professor in psychology at Terra State Community College in Fremont, Ohio, ​about five years ago, saying they were unhappy with their grades.

She had declined to give them a second chance to take an exam.

Holdcroft notified the dean about the pressure from the students, and they all met. The students said Holdcroft was being unreasonable and that they had been working hard in her class.

But all five students had failed their most recent reading quiz – they did not just fail, she said, they missed every question.

“Yet they expected me to comp them a grade,” she said.

Holdcroft said the story illustrates a growing feeling of academic entitlement among college students. Especially in the last eight or nine years, she said she’s noticed a change in students’ expectations. They expect to be rewarded with good grades for merely showing up.

Many who expect more reward for the same or less work are getting it in the form of grade inflation. The average GPA climbed to 3.11 in 2007, from 2.52 in the 1950s, according to research by Stuart Rojstaczer, a former Duke University professor who compiled data from more than 220 universities.

Grade inflation has been documented for more than 30 years, but reasons for the phenomenon are varied. Some attribute grade inflation to students’ evaluations of teacher to administrators’ desire for graduates to be competitive in the work force, but those who follow grade inflation have not reached a consensus.

Holdcroft and others cite academic entitlement as a possible driver of grade inflation, though no research has drawn the link. Holdcroft wrote about the idea of academic entitlement for the American Association of University Professors’ publication Academe.

Millennials, the generation now ages 18 to 29, have been dubbed by some as the most entitled generation. They expect more reward for equal or less effort than any other generations, which researchers and others blame on their helicopter parents and medals for merely showing up at soccer games.

Jill A. Singleton-Jackson, coauthor of a 2010 study, attributed the increase in academic entitlement to educators’ growing tendency to spare children’s feelings. Holdcroft agrees. Singleton-Jackson said parents were hesitant to say any child won or lost and gave awards to everyone.

“Unconditional positive regard, kind of, out of control is what I would call it,” Singleton-Jackson said in an interview.

Her research, done with Dennis L. Jackson and Jeff Reinhardt, suggests that college as a financial investment is cause for some degree of academic entitlement. Singleton-Jackson, Jackson and Reinhardt’s 2010 study in the Journal of Higher Education found that the vast majority of students view higher education as an investment or stepping stone in their pursuit of a larger goal: a job.

According to the study, students see themselves as customers of the university. In turn, the students feel more entitled to a grade that fits their desires.

Jay L. Zagorsky, adjunct associate professor at Boston University and research scientist at Ohio State Universityattributes grade inflation and entitlement, in part, to a growing perception of higher education as a business. He said he believes universities are seeing students more and more as customers who are paying for a service.

“As college becomes more and more expensive, as we’re giving up more and more real resources to go to college, colleges in United States have shifted their mindset,” Zagorsky said. “The mindset is now much more of the student is the customer. And what do customers want? Most of my students want good jobs.”

And universities may be pushing each other into further grade inflation through competition, according to a 2014 study by Kim C. O’Halloran and Michael E. Gordon, which said grade inflation can be contagious. When one school inflates its grades, others may be inclined to follow so their graduates remain competitive in the work force.

Some universities and professors, however, have taken a stand against grade inflation. Wellesley College created a grading policy in 2004 to curb its rapid grade inflation because professors and administrators including Richard French, dean of academic affairs, believe it is detrimental to students.

The Rhodes Scholarship committee indicated in a letter sent to Wellesley and other universities last year that transcripts were becoming increasingly unreliable, and the committee was forced to discount them to some degree.

“The ironic effect of that is, if you have a GPA that’s too high for everybody, you end up being evaluated on the things that do show difference, such as letters of recommendation or the clubs that you were in or your personal essay,” French said. “Your academic achievements don’t get the weight that they might deserve if you truly were outstanding.”

Wellesley’s policy says that the average grade given out in all classes should be no higher than a 3.33 or B+, but it also allows some flexibility. If professors have outstanding classes, which they reward with high grades, they can write to the dean to explain why their students deserved a high average grade.

To avoid putting its students at a disadvantage, the college attaches a letter explaining the policy to its students’ transcripts. Wellesley has tracked students, and French said they are still able to get into law and medical schools despite the lower grades.

French said some students are concerned about being competitive with graduates from other universities, but he believes the policy is beneficial because it helps the college keep a reputation as a rigorous school.

“If everybody going to Harvard gets an A, then what does an A mean?” French asked. “It means you got into Harvard. It doesn’t mean that you were a bright student at Harvard or didn’t do very much at Harvard, just as an example.”

Shelly Kagan, Clark professor of philosophy at Yale University, said he tries to keep his grades fair and uninflated. He believes that the worse grade inflation gets, the more students come to expect it and blame their professors when they are unhappy with their grades.

“The more grade inflation there is then the more people who are below the norms – in terms of the more conservative, the less liberal in handing out high grades – begin to get a reputation and pressure from students,” he said.

Other schools, including Princeton University, have tried to combat the trend. In October, Princeton struck down a 10-year policy limiting the number of As to 35 percent of total grades. Meanwhile, at Yale University, 62 percent of grades given out in the spring of 2012 were As.

Zagorsky said grade inflation will decrease the value of getting a college education. Those who go to college to signal their value to employers rather than acquire knowledge will be hurt the most.

“If everybody has the same high GPA, then we lose the signal’s value,” he said. “When we use the signal’s value, then we have to go fire out some other kind of signal.”

Reach reporter Allison Kite at allison.kite@scripps.com or 202-408-1491. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire. Like the Scripps Howard Foundation Wire interns on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.