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Friday, February 19, 2010

Grade Inflation in Universities

Grade inflation in colleges and universities has been occurring at an explosive rate. Today, many well-respected universities have 50% of their senior classes graduating with honors. A cumulative GPA of 3.5 will get the designation cum laude and a 3.8 will get the graduate a summa cum laude. Quite a contrast to my 1966 graduating class from the College of Arts and Sciences at The University of Pittsburgh in which the average graduate had a 2.5 GPA, a 3.0 GPA was needed to graduate cum laude, and relatively few us had 3.0 cumulative GPAs. Why have “A”s and “B”s become so cheap? For your consideration and reactions, the next few posts will address my thoughts on some of the reasons.

The Paradigm Shift in the Meaning of University Education

Over the last 40 or so years, there has been a gradual paradigm shift in the meaning of a university education. In the past, universities were viewed as temples of knowledge, with professors being the learned priests. Students generally respected their professors because, within the temple of knowledge, the professor had studied his/her discipline and honed his/her expertise through dedication to mastery of existing knowledge and the pursuit of new knowledge. Many of the professors had written textbooks and published their research in peer reviewed journals. The student took the role of apprentice or neophyte, resepctful of the masters and ready to learn from them.

Today, universities are increasingly viewed as degree or credential shops with a focus on vocational preparation or training. Professors are course designers, and much of what they offer their students can be downloaded from textbook publisher websites. Instructional aids such as textbook chapter summaries, PowerPoint presentations, term paper topics, discussion points, and homework assignments are all available to the part-time or adjunct instructors who represent the majority of many of today's faculties. Many of these instructors lack doctoral degrees, but do have practical experience in their fields. Some have Ph.D.s from on-line universities and other distance learning formats. While they might not be up-to-date on the latest research in their field, they usually have pragmatic know-how and are able to relate interesting anecdotes from their wealth of in-field experience.

Students at today’s degree shops tend to view themselves as customers who are buying credits and degrees. The universities, including the traditional bricks-and-mortar institutions who compete for students and tuition dollars, are also viewing them as customers who need to be satisfied with the product they are purchasing. In fact, today’s students often have a sense of entitlement because once they've paid their tuition, they expect to get excellent customer service, high grades, diplomas, and good jobs. Wanting to have satisfied customers, the universities (both for-profit and traditional bricks-and-mortar) are offering their products in convenient forms such as on-line, intensive weekend, and one-evening-per-week formats. For example, a TV advertisement for the for-profit Keiser University features a young woman who states that she can earn her degree by taking on-line courses without ever getting out of her nightgown.

Another marketing element of today’s for-profit universities is the absence of competitive admissions, with the only criteria being a high school diploma or GED and sufficient credit to borrow the tuition. Inflated grades are also essential to the marketing of these for-profit universities. By admitting anybody who can pay the tuition, it is certain that many of the students lack what are usually considered college-level scholastic skills. Only by giving passing grades to virtually all students, regardless of their deficiencies, can these universities expect to get good word-of-mouth advertising and referrals while avoiding lawsuits from dissatisfied customers. To insure good grades for all, many of these diploma shops allow students to re-take exams if they do not do well on the first attempt, and some permit an unlimited number of re-takes.

To my thinking, it seems as though more and more universities are shifting their implied mission statement from the provision of high quality educational experiences for qualified students to making a profit by selling degrees and diplomas to anyone who will pay the tuition and meet some very minimal standards.


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