Why College Grade Inflation is Good for America
Tsk tsk, all you like, but helping students to graduate helps everyone
Try reading up on the topic of grade inflation at U.S. colleges, and you’ll very soon encounter grim opinion essays about moral decay and the erosion of academic standards. We can guess that most of these missives were penned by those with secure jobs, little or no student debt remaining and a certain distance from, shall we say, economic peril.
It’s easy to wag one’s finger from such a perch.
Now consider the sophomore or junior in college kicked to the curb for sub-par grades. They likely now have student debt that will be super difficult to repay without the better job and income that a college degree brings. There’s likely a concurrent plunge in self-esteem and all the personal and societal costs that go with that. Oh, and they aren’t paying tuition anymore, so the institution of higher learning suffers, too.
Universities will tout their many kindnesses and services — tutoring, student mentoring, childcare and added dollops of financial aid — when asked about how they get marginal students over the hump to achieve remarkable graduation rates. But a new working paper finds that “about 95% of the total increase in graduation rates is likely explained just by increasing grades,” says one of its authors, Kevin Mumford, an associate professor of economics at Purdue University.
Today, over 90% of students at top-50 colleges graduate within six years, as do 62% of all bachelor’s degree students, skewed heavily toward students with better grades. Mumford and his fellow researchers analyzed decades of graduation data to determine why. They used a process of elimination: No, students aren’t better prepared than earlier generations, and no, today’s schools do not have better family resources, and no, colleges aren’t spending more to help students. This is America, after all! So what is likely at play? Pure grade inflation.
Though grade inflation may incite hand-wringing over lower standards and youth going to hell in a handbasket, “it’s not clear that the standards we had in the ’70s and ’80s should be the standards today, nor that they were right at the time,” says Mumford’s co-author, Jeffrey Denning, an associate professor of economics at Brigham Young University. “We were failing people out of college, and that’s really costly to society.”
Consider the multi-prong catastrophe that happens when students fail out. For schools, which run increasingly as businesses, dropouts are lost customers. There’s also a marketing game involved. Schools want high graduation rates to boost their rankings, and “they want students to become great alumni that go on and do good things and build the brand of the university,” Mumford says.
Meanwhile, taxpayers subsidize many college educations through grants and loans, to the tune of over $1 trillion per year, in the hope that students will become productive adults, not dropouts. Everyone wants that.
For students, failing to finish can be financially disastrous. “The students that have a hard time paying back their loans are those that haven’t graduated from college. They started school, they incurred a lot of debt in student loans, and then by not graduating, they didn't get that salary bump that they would have gotten had they graduated,” Mumford says. College graduates earn an average of 30% more than two-year degree holders (and 40% more than high school degree holders). You try paying back a $25,000 loan on an income of $15 per hour.
Worried we’re unleashing unqualified people into the workforce? There are plenty of great workers who were crummy students. Employers can sort this out.
Grade inflation is free, and averts the aforementioned cluster jam. And so colleges alter their grading standards to pass marginal students. “This is a choice that colleges make,’” Denning says. “It’s not something that just drops on us from heaven or something.” Marginal students, in particular, benefit hugely. One study followed students on the edge of expulsion from Ohio public universities, and found that the students who just hold on are much more likely to graduate from a college, and have much higher earnings than their expelled counterparts, who rarely re-apply.
So what can you learn from this? Realize that when it comes to staying in school, GPA is everything. The higher your GPA, the higher your chance of graduating. So your best hope for graduating is to choose a path on which you’ll likely pull high grades.
Stick to courses for which you have a knack. If grades are a struggle, college is not the moment to meet a language requirement by learning Russian, or explore painting for an art requirement even though you can’t paint. (Spanish and collage are your friends.)
Do what you need to do to graduate. “The old view was that a college made a lot of choices for you — you maybe got to choose your major, but then it kind of assigned you a schedule,” Mumford says. “Most universities now have a lot more choice, where the student is able to chart her own path. And that seems to be working better for students.” This gives you lots of flexibility to change majors, go part-time, switch classes, or even add an extra semester as needed. Most schools will work with you.
Go to office hours. Professors and administrators want to paddle you to calmer waters, so let ‘em. Everyone’s on your side. “There’s not a lot of incentives for keeping grades low. Who is the constituency for low grades?” Denning asks.