A’s have become typical on college campuses

Robert Thomas Young

A new study published in Teachers College Record finds that 43 percent of college grades at four-year institutions are A’s.

When compared to the fact that only 15 percent of grades were A’s in 1960, a puzzling question emerges: Why have the percent of A’s nearly tripled in fifty years?

In the article “Where A Is Ordinary: The Evolution of American College and University Grading, 1940–2009,” authors Stuart Rojstaczer and Christopher Healy propose that a “consumer-based” attitude to higher education is mostly to blame. They suggest that professors want to keep students satisfied with their courses and the college in general.

The news doesn’t stop there. A’s and B’s collectively represent 73 percent of grades given at public colleges and 86 percent at private schools, and the authors look to the fact that teacher evaluations are often used in determining compensation, promotions and tenure.

“As a result of instructors gradually lowering their standards, A has become the most common grade on American college campuses,” Rojstaczer and Healy conclude, stating that “without regulation, or at least strong grading guidelines, grades at American institutions of higher learning likely will continue to have less and less meaning.”

This is an important point, mostly because of our representative system of academics. Grades, or college degrees for that matter, are supposed to represent the amount of information a person learns. More importantly, a grade is supposed to represent a person’s ability in a certain area or subject.

Distinguishing good performance from excellent performance may get lost in the transcripts when an A is the most common grade in college. Not only does it lessen the importance of an A, it lessens what a college degree represents.

“GPAs are now so saturated at the high end that they have little use as a motivator of students and as an evaluation tool for graduate and professional schools and employers,” states Rojstaczer and Healy, commenting on the data compiled from 135 schools and enrollment of 1.5 million students.

While the attention is focused on the teaching evaluations as a motivation for more A grades, some consideration should be given to the cultural change in higher education that has taken place in the last twenty years. Colleges have become more and more commoditized as a path to a job instead of a path to learning or higher education.

If colleges want to run like an efficient and ever-growing business, constant recruitment is necessary. Colleges want to boost enrollment, and higher completion rates don’t hurt. When you look at the rising consumer attitude, it isn’t hard to understand why more A’s are given out than any other grade.

Teacher evaluations, competition from other colleges, administrative pressure and more consumer-savvy students may all be microcosms that are tilting the grading system at both public and private colleges. Regardless of the causality, college grading has changed, and it doesn’t look like it will recede any time soon.

Handing out A’s seems to benefit most of the participants in the system, at least in the short term. The administration gets better numbers, the professors get better evaluations and the students get better grades.

It reminds me of the housing industry and Wall Street, where the numbers representing the investment became less and less relevant to the actual investment. At a certain point, standards become meaningless. If inflated pricing caused the massive housing bubble and subsequent meltdown, what will inflated grades do to academics?

Robert Young is a senior philosophy major. Contact him at [email protected].