Democracy, Not Policy:

How Democratizing the Workplace Can Reverse Grade Inflation and Restore the Quality of American Higher Education

“‘Grade inflation in academia is like the alcoholic brother you pretend is just fine. When someone calls your brother a drunk, you get angry and defend him, although privately you worry. That’s where we are with grade inflation: public denial and private concern.’” That’s how Stuart Rojstaczer, former professor of applied earth sciences at Duke University, describes the issue of grade inflation in American universities in “Doesn’t Anybody Get a C Anymore?”  an article by Phil Primack published in October 2008 in the Boston Globe. Rojstaczer has been working to bring us out of “public denial” since he created in 2002, where he posts data, research and articles on the topic. Primack is a professor of journalism at Tufts University, and he cites Rojstaczer’s work as well as quotes him directly in his discussion of grade inflation in American universities. In March 2009, Rojstaczer added two more cents of his own to the conversation: “Grade Inflation Gone Wild,” an article published in the Christian Science Monitor. Both authors draw on a wealth of statistical information and their experience as university professors to show that grade inflation is clearly a major issue, that both students and professors contribute to it, and that it can be effectively addressed if universities institute the correct policies.

Rojstaczer and Primack largely utilize statistical evidence to establish that grade inflation is indeed a problem in American universities. According to Primack, “about 15 percent of Harvard graduates got a B-plus or better in 1950,” but “in 2007, more than half of all Harvard grades were in the A range.” He follows up these figures by pointing out similar trends at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where the average GPA rose from 3.02 in 1997 to 3.19 a decade later. Likewise, Rojstaczer describes data he found from “more than 80 colleges and universities” showing that “grades started to shoot up nationwide in the 1960s, leveled off in the 1970s, and then started rising again in the 1980s.” He also found that roughly two-thirds of grades at Brown University are now A’s, and at public universities the average GPA is now 3.0 “with many flagship state schools having average GPAs higher than 3.2." Both authors’ use of statistics leaves no doubt in the reader’s mind as to how they define grade inflation and how pervasive it is in American universities. Rojstaczer introduces these statistics beginning with a brief story about how he first encountered these trends when he saw a graph “in the student union of a small liberal arts” indicating grades had risen dramatically over the past 30 years and describes the intrigue that led him to seek out similar data and create a website where he could make it available to everyone. Introducing himself as “a scientist by training” and implying he frequently visits multiple colleges immediately establishes his authority to comment on trends in higher education. Likewise, Primack establishes his credibility by opening with an anecdote in which one of his students complained because he received a B on an assignment – a grade Primack thought quite generous considering that the student’s work was both late and sub-standard. Through their personal stories and the statistical evidence they present, both authors employ effective appeals to ethos and logos to establish that grade inflation exists, before offering their insights into its causes and effects.

Rojstaczer and Primack build their arguments around anecdotal evidence, drawing on their experience as university professors and interviews with other educators, to reveal how both students and professors contribute to grade inflation. Primack asserts that grade inflation is caused “because many professors fear that “tough grading” will trigger poor student evaluations or worse, which can in turn jeopardize the academic career track.” As evidence, Primack offers an anecdote from Rojstaczer’s career, who throughout his career at Duke had to “‘reduce [his] own expectations of workload and increase grades in order to have students leave [his] class with a positive impression.’” Primack also spoke with former president of the University of Colorado Hank Brown and describes his views on and attempts to tackle the issue of grade inflation. Brown told Primack that “grade inflation hides laziness on the part of students” and makes it difficult to “recognize the difference between an outstanding job and a good job.” Rojstaczer echoes these concerns in his Christian Science Monitor piece:

“When students walk into a classroom knowing that they can go through the motions and get a B+ or better, that’s what they tend to do, give minimal effort. Our college classrooms are filled with students who do not prepare for class. Many students study less than 10 hours a week – that’s less than half the hours they spent studying 40 years ago.”

Furthermore, Primack points out the institution’s role in the process. Because they are “unwilling to challenge and possibly offend students and their hovering, tuition-paying parents,” colleges frequently side in opposition to those professors among their faculty attempting to maintain more rigorous grading standards. Rojstaczer also backs up his anecdotes by citing a survey of 30,000-plus students which revealed “nearly half were spending more hours drinking than they were studying.” Together, the anecdotal evidence both authors provide reveals how professors in pursuit of better evaluations yield to students in pursuit of high marks in a cycle that inflates grades, encourages laziness in students, and lowers the quality of the education university professors deliver.

To close their articles, Rojstaczer and Primack then discuss how universities can implement effective policies to intervene in the cycle and reverse grade inflation. Both authors cite Princeton University and Wellesley College as examples to follow. The former implemented a policy in 2004 requiring that A’s comprise no more than 35% of all undergraduate course grades, and the latter “calls for the average grade in undergraduate courses to be no higher than a B-plus (3.33 GPA)." Since implementing those policies, the average GPA at both schools has dropped considerably. Rojstaczer adds another prime example to the list: Reed University in Oregon, which has successfully kept grade inflation in-check through a continued effort over the past twenty years. While much of their evidence building up to their conclusion is anecdotal, the strength their concluding argument lies in these real-world examples of policy solutions that have actually worked – no conjecture or hypotheticals. They also bolster their conclusion with direct quotes from leaders within those universities who have effectively took on grade inflation. Rojstaczer asked dean Nancy Malkiel why more universities haven’t followed suit with Princeton, who stressed the difficulty of convincing college faculty that it’s worth doing. Likewise, in Primack’s discussion of Wellesley College’s policy, he quotes a conversation with Adele Wolfson, the associate dean, “‘It’s not that we’re trying to get grades down, but we’re trying to get grades to mean something,’” giving the reader a poignant reminder of the purpose behind combating grade inflation. By citing examples of university policies that have already effectively reversed grade inflation and providing direct quotes from the experts overseeing those policies, both Rojstaczer and Primack close their argument leaving no doubt in the reader’s mind as to how grade inflation can be effectively combatted with institutional policies.

However, while they offer effective statistical and anecdotal evidence to persuade the reader that grade inflation is indeed a problem with detrimental effects on students’ “life and learning,” a deeper rhetorical analysis of these two articles by Rojstaczer and Primack reveals their failure to establish the cause of grade inflation. Instead, the relationship they establish between the behavior of the professors and the students within the context of grade inflation is more dialectic in nature, contained within the university, rather than causal; neither author discusses the exterior factors, e.g. political, demographic, or economic, which may influence either party in the relationship and the university overall. With such factors considered, their policy solution amounts to a Band-Aid on a bullet wound, and however effective it may be at patching up grade inflation, it will do little to nothing to reverse the declining quality of higher education in the United States.

First, we need to understand the dialectic structure of the relationship between students, professors, and grade inflation within the university Primack and Rojstaczer lay out for us. It essentially works like this: students, desperate for high grades, pressure their professors, who in turn, desperate for good student evaluations, submit to their students, causing grade inflation. Grade inflation leads to a decline in academic standards and rigor, causing students to become even lazier. Lazier students, expecting more for less and still desperate for good grades, increase the pressure on their professors, still desperate for good evaluations, who consequently submit again, creating more grade inflation, lower standards, and lazier students, and round and round we go – all contained within the isolated environment of the university. The cycle can be visualized in a sort-of “Figure-8” pattern. (See the diagram below.)

BIG Grade Inflation Diagram

Viewed this way, we can reveal the flaws in Rojstaczer and Primack’s argument and proposed policy solution. For one, both authors focus on students’ laziness and professors’ submission to them as the drivers of grade inflation, placing the burden, and rightly so, on the university and the professors to act. However, as we can now see, laziness in students is a by-product, not driver, of grade inflation. Likewise, professors do not submit because the students became lazier. Professors have an incentive to give good grades: they need good evaluations. Students need good grades and, therefore, also have an incentive to pressure their professors. This incentive structure exists regardless of how lazy the students are or how spineless the professors are, and therefore, it must be addressed to realistically combat grade inflation. But the policy solution Rojstaczer and Primack advocate for – requiring professors to give out less A’s or reduce average GPAs – does not alter the incentive structure at all. Instead, it simply attempts to restrain one party in the relationship, the professors, from doing what the system incentivizes them to do. Their solution could be likened to a lap band surgery, which gives no incentive for an obese person to stop eating - they just fill up faster. Similarly, restricting the number of A’s professors can award gives them no incentive to stop giving more for less, nor does it give the students an incentive to be content with a lower grade. An A might become the mark of excellence again, but the quality of B and C work may still steadily decline. Furthermore, it doesn’t ensure that an A paper in 2017 will be of the same or better quality of an A paper in 1950. “Lap-banded” professors won’t stop inflating grades, in the sense of giving higher marks for poorer work - they’ll just fill up faster on A’s. GPAs may go down, but that doesn’t mean academic rigor or education quality will go up. Grade inflation merely takes on a new form, operates within new limitations.

Therefore, an effective policy solution must alter the incentive structure driving grade inflation by addressing, one, why students are so desperate for high grades, and, two, why professors are so desperate for positive evaluations and must consider the external factors influencing those incentives. To put it in a word, the reason both students are under so much pressure to get high grades and professors are under so much pressure to give them is the same: economics. Students need good grades to get accepted to the next degree program, get hired at a decent-paying job, and make a living. Professors need good evaluations to get promoted, keep their decent-paying jobs, and make a living. It follows, then, that the pressure on both parties to get and give good grades will increase as it becomes more difficult for students and professors to make a living.

Today, the United States has the worst income inequality of any first-world nation, with the top 1% of earners controlling over 21% of the total income.  In 1973, the United States had the best income inequality of any first-world nation, with the top 1% of earners controlling less than 9% of the total income. Today, the federal minimum wage today is just barely above $7 an hour. In 1968, the minimum wage had the buying power of over $10.55 an hour, when adjusted for inflation. Today, the average cost of tuition for one semester of college is $9,650, or 17.3% of the median household income  In 1970, the average cost of college tuition was just 4% of the median household income (according to Aftershock: The Future of America’s Next Economy by professor of public policy and former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich), and many public universities were tuition-free. Today, millions of Americans with college degrees are unemployed or underemployed. In the 1970s, as Sir Ken Robinson puts it in his famous TED Talk on education reform, “If you had a degree and you didn’t have a job, it was because you didn’t want one.” Today, it is harder than ever for students in America to make a living.

Author Kevin Birmingham recently received the Truman Capote Award for The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses and used his acceptance speech to address an “injustice tarnishing the . . . profession” of higher education in America. Since 1975, the number of part-time adjunct professors has more than quadrupled. Whereas the majority of university professors used to have tenure, today, part-time adjuncts make up roughly five-sixths of the professoriate in American universities. Of that five-sixths, 89% work at two or more institutions, and 13% work at four or more. Unlike tenured faculty, adjuncts have no guarantees that they will remain hired on for the next semester; their courses can be cancelled from the curriculum at a moment’s notice, even days before the start date, which explains why they’re so desperate to maintain immaculate evaluations. At the average rate adjunct professors make in America – $2700 per semester course – if a professor teaches five courses she makes $27,000 per year, just barely above the Federal Poverty Level for a family of four. Losing a course due to poor student evaluations could mean that professor has her car repossessed or her home foreclosed on (I use the feminine pronoun because 61% of adjuncts today are women). Today, it is harder than ever for professors to make a living in America.

What’s worse is that both authors hint at these factors, but then leave them completely unaddressed. In Rojcstaczer’s article, he tells us that he “learned that grades started to shoot up nationwide in the 1960s, leveled off in the 1970s, and then started rising again in the 1980s,” but he offers no explanation for why that might have happened. Primack similarly offers his own anecdote about how he used to be quite proud of a B in a course when he attended Tufts University in the 1960s, but today grade inflation “leaves many students regarding the once-acceptable B – which has always stood for “good” – as a transcript wrecker, and a C – that is, “average” – as an unmitigated disaster,” yet leaves us without a coherent explanation of what has changed at Tufts, or in the country, in the last 50 years. Primack also acknowledges that “many professors fear ‘tough grading’ will trigger poor student evaluations or worse, which in turn can jeopardize the academic career track” but does not ask why professors are so much more afraid of poor evaluations than in the ‘60s and ‘70s.

In Primack’s article, he offers a spokesman’s explanation from University of Massachusetts at Amherst, who claims that the rise in GPAs at his school is merely due to “increasingly well-prepared students.” While Primack is quite skeptical of just how true this claim really is, and rightfully so, in today’s academic climate, it certainly warrants heavy consideration as the cause for the initial rise in GPAs Rojstaczer notes in the 1960s. When World War II ended in 1945, the Baby Boom began. Those babies would come of age and begin to enter college en-masse in the 1960s. On top of that, nearly 15% of the population of the United States served in the military in World War II (dwarfing the less-than 1% of the citizenry which makes up the military today), and while the war ended in the’40s, many of those GIs wouldn’t make use of their education benefits until many years later. Combined with the increased affordability of public universities, which averaged only 4 percent of the median family income for tuition from 1948 to 1975, college enrollment soared. Surely these dramatic shifts in demographics affected both the quality and quantity of students in American universities in the 1960s. Then, by the 1970s, the wave passed and grades “leveled off” again. To explain the increase in grade inflation that began again in the 1980s and has yet to stop, we turn back to politics and economics. By the end of the 1970s, the United States had fully embraced neoliberal economics. Corporations had expanded into international entities and had begun shipping good-paying jobs out of America and overseas to Southeast Asia and Central and South America, where labor is much cheaper and regulations much looser. The good-paying manufacturing jobs that once sustained America’s vibrant middle class have been rapidly disappearing ever since. The so-called “Free Trade Agreements” such as NAFTA and CAFTA signed by the Clinton administration along with the rapid proliferation of robotic automation greatly exacerbated the problem as well. Meanwhile, Americans’ have not seen an increase in the buying-power of their wages since 1973,  despite worker productivity being higher than ever. That’s why students today are so desperate to graduate with an immaculate report card: anything to give them a leg up on their peers fighting over the few jobs left in America with decent salaries and medical benefits.

Another piece of evidence Rojstaczer uses to support his own argument ought to have cued him into the economic factors influencing grade inflation. He found that “private schools had much higher grades than public schools.” Private institutions receive a much higher portion of their funding from, and therefore much more at the mercy of the “whining students” and “their hovering, tuition-paying parents” Primack blames for pressuring professors into slacking on standards.

The fact that both authors neglect to address the exterior economic, political, and demographic factors affecting grade inflation in their rhetoric leads the reader to infer a horribly inaccurate assumption: that nothing has changed for students, professors, or universities in America for over half a decade, other than the students being lazier and the professors more lenient. In light of the larger situation surrounding higher education in the United States, Rojstaczer and Primack’s apparently insightful tone and academic rhetoric comes across instead as uninformed and pretentious, especially if the reader were to find out they belong to that one-sixth of university faculty who still enjoy the privilege and security of tenure.

In conclusion, educational institutions do not exist in a vacuum. Universities, the students who attend, and the faculty who teach therein are influenced by a variety of factors (e.g. politics, economics, and demographics) which must be considered in crafting any effective policy to combat grade inflation. While Primack and Rojstaczer undoubtedly provide keen insights into the way the interplay between students and professors affects grade inflation, their proposed policy solution fails to address the underlying incentive structure driving it. To realistically combat grade inflation and, more importantly, restore the quality of education in the United States, systemic reform is necessary. We must reverse the dramatic cuts made to education funding in the last few decades to bring tuition back to reasonable rates and pay professors what they deserve. An article published by the American Council on Education revealed that “based on the trends since 1980, average state fiscal support for higher education will reach zero by 2059, although it could happen much sooner in some states and later in others." However, as Birmingham also points out, the issue cannot be blamed on budget cuts alone. “Years of AAUP reports indicate that budgets for instruction are proportionally shrinking,” Birmingham says, “Meanwhile, administrative positions have increased at ten times the rate of tenured faculty positions.” 

Richard Wolff, Ph.D., is a current professor of economics at The New School in New York and a professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst; he recently discussed the same issue on his weekly radio program, “Economic Update.” A sort of class warfare is going on in American universities, Wolff says. He notes how the power dynamic in universities changed during his time as a professor:

“I’ve been a professor all my life, too, and when we started, it was clear to us – in the universities where I taught – that the basic decisions about what was done in that university were made by collectives of professors. The twenty-seven in the economics department, we got together. We discussed the curriculum. We discussed financially helping students. We were in charge. The administrators were under us in the sense their job was to do the administration subordinate to serving what the professors did. This collective power by those qualified to do it has been usurped. We have, now, a university that copies the model of a corporate enterprise, with a Borad of Directors at the top, typically having little or nothing to do with what the company does, telling everybody else what to do, paying themselves wild amounts of money, as if their control ought to be reimbursed, undermining the very function of what the university does.”

Wolff likens this dynamic within universities to the that of corporations, and he has a structural solution for both: democratize the enterprise. If every worker in a corporation got to vote on what they produce, how they produce it, and what they do with the profits, it’s highly unlikely that they’ll vote to enrich the managers and impoverish themselves. Or if a company finds out about a machine that increases efficiency by 50 percent, the workers wouldn’t vote to fire half their coworkers; they would be more inclined to cut their workweek in half instead. Workers also would not vote to move their factory to Asia, just to make the company more money, if it put their entire community out of work. Likewise, if every faculty member in a university got to vote on the curriculum, the administrative structure, and pay of each position, it’s doubtful that they would vote to create a class of wildly rich, overbearing administrators and force the majority of the teaching staff to survive on poverty wages. Democratizing the workplace is the systemic reform we need not only to relieve the socioeconomic pressures on students, professors, and universities driving grade inflation but, more importantly, to remedy the social and economic injustices perpetrated on the working class of America by unfettered capitalism over the last four decades. Putting additional pressure and restrictions on overburdened professors, already running around ragged from school to school to scrape together a living, and dragging down students’ GPAs, who have enough trouble competing in today’s economy even with straight A’s, will only exacerbate the situation. These reforms will not come quickly, and they will not come easily, but we must have the discipline and patience to stay the course and not be appeased with quick fixes and half-measures. If democracy is truly something we value as a society, it’s about time we have democracy in the workplace.