Wednesday, February 25, 2009
Grade Inflation Update Part 10: Everything You Need To Know in One State
This was published yesterday in the Raleigh News and Observer.
Point of View: Raleigh News & Observer, Published: Feb 23, 2009 06:46 PM Modified: Feb 24, 2009 05:39 AM
Heading to when A is average
BY STUART ROJSTACZER
STANFORD, Calif. - I collect data on college grades. It's a hobby of mine. Others collect cars, commemorative plates and whatnot. That's not my thing. I'd rather collect data. And given that I'm a retired college professor from Duke, it would make sense that I'd be interested in grading.
Over a million students total are represented in my database, which can be found at www.gradeinflation.com. The average GPA nationwide is now between 3.0 and 3.1. Grading is easy in America, and grades have been rising nationwide for over 20 years.
But you don't need to look at data from all over the country to know this. All you have to do is examine college grading in one state, North Carolina. I've collected extensive grading histories from six North Carolina schools.
Everything you need to know about grading in colleges across America can be found in those six schools, one private and elite, Duke; one private and modestly selective, Elon; and four public, including an engineering school, N.C. State University, and a flagship liberal arts school, UNC-Chapel Hill.
First off, it's worth noting that, at all six schools, grades keep going up to the tune of 0.1 to 0.3 change in GPA per decade. Just like everywhere else in the country, schools in North Carolina are grading easier than ever.
But it's also interesting to look at the actual GPAs of these schools. At the top of the heap grade-wise, you have Duke, which has for at least 40 years graded about 0.2 higher than UNC-Chapel Hill. The gap widens and narrows slightly over those 40 years, but it's persistent. Right now it's narrowing and Duke's GPA is 3.4 while UNC's is in comparison a meek 3.2. Those are typical numbers for elite schools and flagship state schools, respectively, across the country.
Below UNC-Chapel Hill, historically you have North Carolina schools with harsher grading. N.C. State tends to draw the techie/engineering types and, like at most tech schools, GPAs are low.
N.C. State's grading, about an average 2.9 GPA, is actually very similar to other state tech schools like Purdue and Georgia Tech. Nerds apparently don't cry when they get B's.
Then you have satellite schools and nonselective private schools with less competitive students and lower grades historically as well. That mirrors the nation. Less competitive schools historically have had lower GPAs.
But something is changing in these grading patterns. Two of these historically low grading schools are showing rapid increases in grades, UNC-Asheville and Elon University. They are approaching the average GPA at Chapel Hill, even though their students, on average, aren't as competitive.
What's happening at these schools is similar to what is happening across the country. Liberal arts colleges like Elon have seen dramatic rises in GPAs over the last 20 years. Then there are state schools, like UNC-Asheville, that were once sleepy little regional things in attractive settings that suddenly became attractive to out-of-staters. These, too, can be expected to have significant rises in GPA, far faster than the national average.
Administrators will tell you that grades are rising for myriad reasons that reflect well on their institutions. Students are getting better. Teachers are getting better. Methods of teaching are better.
That may all be true at some colleges, but that's not the real driver. It never has been what has driven rising grades. Grade inflation leads to worse education, but it does make for happier students with brighter prospects for job and post-graduate school placement. That's why we inflate grades. It's true in North Carolina. It's true everywhere.
In a nutshell, grading in North Carolina and the rest of the colleges in America has turned into a kind of horse race. Everyone is racing to get to the point where the average student is an A student. In about 30 years, if current trends hold, Duke, UNC-Chapel Hill, UNC-Asheville and Elon will all get there. The average GPA at all of those places will be between 3.6 and 4.0. The same can be said for hundreds of colleges and universities -- both prominent and obscure -across the country.
What will it mean if in 2040, A is average in many of America's colleges? It certainly means that grades will be meaningless. It also undoubtedly means that we will have severely discounted the value of higher education. Grade inflation represents the greatest collective failure in education in America over the last 20 years.
Stuart Rojstaczer is a former professor of geophysics from Duke University. He is the author of a book, "Gone for Good: Tales of University Life After the Golden Age," and many articles on higher education and grading. Christopher Healy was instrumental in finding data for this article.