Who is an "A" student today?
The issue of college grade inflation made its way back into the news recently, spurred by former Duke University professor Stuart Rojstaczer who has charted grade inflation for 20 years. His figures show the national grade point average is between 3.0 and 3.1, and predicts that will rise to 3.6 or higher within 30 years, if current trends hold.
Elon faculty members have also been expressing concern about grades at the university, where the average grade point average for the fall 2008 semester was 3.16. Moreover, 40 percent of the grades assigned last fall were A’s. Faculty prepared for our April faculty meeting by holding a series of small group discussions about the pattern of rising grades. There is a growing concern about the trend and an increasing awareness of the complexity of the issues.
The grade inflation discussion at Elon coincides with other campus initiatives to increase academic challenge to keep pace with the rising quality of the student body. Addressing the grading issue is a natural outgrowth of those efforts.
Of course, the assignment of grades is a faculty prerogative. Some faculty members believe standards are completely out of whack with what is published in the university catalog, where a C is defined as “average performance in which a basic understanding of the subject has been demonstrated.” They question whether the “distinguished” meaning of A grades has been diluted. One tongue-in-cheek idea floated on campus is that the photo of senior Breanna Detwiler, national Truman, Mitchell and Udall scholarship winner, should flash on the computer screen every time a faculty member enters a grade of A, prompting a not-so-subtle comparison to everyone’s ideal of a great student!
For other faculty members, today’s higher grades reflect a university culture of engaged learning and increasing qualifications of entering students. The Class of 2013 entering this fall is projected to have an average high school grade point average in core subjects above a 4.0. Clearly, Elon students do not have a lot of experience earning grades below B in high school. There is no doubt that this generation of students is grade conscious, with students highly aware of faculty grading standards and how to go about meeting them. They also are aware that their academic records will have a very real impact on their applications for graduate or professional school or their ability to compete for work in a tough job market.
Many faculty members argue convincingly that Elon’s learning-centered culture leads to higher grades overall. For example, many faculty members react to draft after draft of their students’ major papers, helping them to understand in a specific academic context what the standards for distinguished work are and how the current drafts might fall short. This is how learning to do excellent work is taught in many settings — not only academic ones — where critical feedback, revision and reworking leads to better results. In my view, this represents an important shift in the conversation, placing a premium on student learning. It is no wonder that the faculty at Elon, and at colleges and universities across the nation, are conflicted on the topic of grade inflation.
Clearly, we must remain committed to maintaining standards of excellence. At Elon, we also will keep the primary campus conversations focused on promoting academic rigor, because the college experiences that have the greatest lasting impact and value are those in which we were most challenged and taught important lessons of perseverance and resilience.