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Grade distribution by course and section at UW-Madison
December 13, 2011 3:43 PM   Subscribe

The grade distribution for all courses at UW-Madison is available going back to the spring 2004 semester. Unlike studies of aggregate grades that document grade inflation with time, this site provides grade distributions for each individual course and section. The data clearly shows that students in STEM courses at Madison receive markedly lower grades than students in education courses. Cornell recently stopped posting similar data because it believes access to this information causes grade inflation because students select courses with higher medium grade averages. This recent article addresses the question of grade inflation more generally and the efforts at UNC to fight it. Meanwhile, this student editorial in the Bowdoin newspaper argues that faculty at selective schools must continue to inflate grades so that students can maintain a competitive advantage. Also, see this previous post.
posted by Seymour Zamboni (91 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite

 
I am a professor at UW-Madison and I blogged about this data last year, when the Capital Times did a front-page story on it.

My take on grade inflation from Slate: grade inflation in itself probably doesn't matter, but differential grading between majors probably does.
posted by escabeche at 3:52 PM on December 13, 2011 [5 favorites]


As someone who double-majored in the humanities and STEM: This falls squarely into the category of "Things that are pretty obvious, but it's nice to have the numbers."
posted by Tomorrowful at 3:52 PM on December 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


In five years of teaching, I have yet to hear a convincing argument for the existence of grade inflation.

Instead, what I have seen is that fewer and fewer professors are allowed to continue teaching who believe that students should fail regardless of effort. I just turned in my own grades, and I can tell you that the distribution was a nearly perfect Bimodal shape.

That said, the only students who fail my class are those who apply no effort. You may get a noncredit C-, but you will not fail, so long as you put in some damned effort.
posted by strixus at 3:54 PM on December 13, 2011 [3 favorites]


I am in grad school after going to undergrad about 20 years ago. First of all, my undergrad did not have + or - and did not calculate GPAs, both to try and dissuade us from worrying about grades too much. But it sure feels like grades mean different things now. Classes over 25 students have to be curved so that the average grade is a B+. I am taking a bunch of quant courses along with International Security Policy classes where the grade is based on a paper and the effort that goes into the reading/writing courses has to be half of what goes into the quant courses.
posted by shothotbot at 3:59 PM on December 13, 2011


My niece just started at a major university in the South. Her older brother, another major university.

They're both great kids, both on full ride academic scholarships. That said, neither is in a STEM program.

I wonder if they'll really get anything out of their four years that'll be truly, truly useful, other than friendship and social skills.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 4:02 PM on December 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


This post on the NY Times blog has some nice figures:
http://economix.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/07/14/the-history-of-college-grade-inflation/?src=tptw
posted by gyp casino at 4:04 PM on December 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


When college degrees were rarer, did it make as much of a difference to get a C or a B?

Because in today's environment, when college degrees are very common, a lot of employers demand that you have a GPA above a 3.7. I used to review resumes and had various transcripts in front of me where a lot of students had high cumulative GPAs in classes that had titles similar to New York Times bestsellers.

It's a competitive world. I'm not surprised that students are probably working harder (or that college professors are easy graders). After all, you have expectations like those of Google's Marissa Mayer: "“One candidate got a C in macroeconomics…That’s troubling to me. Good students are good at all things.”
posted by anniecat at 4:06 PM on December 13, 2011 [7 favorites]


Well it's really just an arms race. If you're the school that bucks the trend and actually hands out C's to your average students and reserves even B's for above-average ones, you are also going to be the school that sends very few of your students to top graduate programs.

You are also going to be the school whose alums have resumes that appear lackluster in comparison to their peers' and who have a tough time getting jobs.

You are going to be the school with a less professionally successful alumni base, lower rates and amounts of alumni giving, a smaller endowment, less money to attract top professors and students to your school....

There may be a handful of ultra-prestigious institutions that can get away with being rigorous in their grading, but you can probably count them on both hands.
posted by dixiecupdrinking at 4:10 PM on December 13, 2011 [9 favorites]


I went to Harvey Mudd College, a science and engineering school. It's a small school, so one of the mandatory freshman science lecture courses accommodated the entire matriculating class (who were pretty smart, with one third getting a perfect score on the math SAT).

Anyway, I recall a midterm freshman exam where we had an average score that was less than 60%. The letter grades we received were correspondingly non-inflated, which kind of sucked when trying to compete with graduates from other institutions.
posted by exogenous at 4:10 PM on December 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


dixiecup, "ultra-prestigious institutions" are well known for giving out As like candy, while public schools are legendary for flunking people left, right ,and centre. It seems that you don't advance to higher education or good jobs based on your marks from places like that, it's 100% based on the network you've built.
posted by Yowser at 4:18 PM on December 13, 2011 [3 favorites]


grades are 90% social engineering... the idea that they represent some form of "scientific" assessment derives from the social anxiety created by the GI Bill and the opening of higher education to the hoi polloi...
posted by ennui.bz at 4:23 PM on December 13, 2011


You touch on another interesting point with the state school comparison. With tuition being what it is these days, colleges no longer have students so much as they have customers. How can you ethically justify taking $50,000 a year from some 18 year old kid, and then telling him that you're going to fail him? The cost of higher education has established a quid pro quo situation. It would be practically unconscionable not to give someone passing marks after they've laid out the amount of money it costs to go to college.
posted by dixiecupdrinking at 4:25 PM on December 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


Thank god for grade inflation in my gen-ed/humanities courses. Otherwise I never would have been able to put the time into my engineering courses that I did.
posted by sbutler at 4:27 PM on December 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


Grades suck.
posted by silby at 4:29 PM on December 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


It would be practically unconscionable not to give someone passing marks after they've laid out the amount of money it costs to go to college.

It definitely seems like you have to actively try to go on a Dean's vacation nowadays.
posted by selenized at 4:30 PM on December 13, 2011


dixiecupdrinking has a good point. Admission to colleges has soared over the past few decades, and tuition has sky-rocketed. Income has also gone up. From my point of view, it seems like a chunk of this money is going straight towards employing a huge new middle level of bureaucrats - marketing/PR staff, MBA visionizers and strategizers, student advisors and hand-holders - in order to attract the customers and keep them happy and give them a 'good experience.'
posted by carter at 4:30 PM on December 13, 2011 [3 favorites]


Here's a list of colleges and universities that use narrative evaluations are in addition to or instead of grades.

I suppose that "evaluation inflation" and "recommendation letter inflation" forces might stil be in effect, but it is a nice way to dodge the whole damn issue.

(I should correct the New College entry: while letter/number grades are never used for the course as a whole, some STEM courses use numerical grades for some individual tests. I always figured this was because numbers made the science / engineering folks more comfortable.)
posted by feckless at 4:34 PM on December 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


A very long time ago, I taught at a college (all women) that wanted to use a Pass/fail system for courses...The students favored this but I recall one young lady saying outstanding students should have a Pass Plus grade to distinguish them from the Pass group.
posted by Postroad at 4:39 PM on December 13, 2011


How can you ethically justify taking $50,000 a year from some 18 year old kid, and then telling him that you're going to fail him?

I agree. Plus retention is a big deal in ranking.

Several folks I know and have worked with from some of the different American MPP programs told me that the lowest grade they were told by professors that they were likely to get were B's. If anyone got lower than that, they would be kicked out of the program or asked to take a leave for a semester.
posted by anniecat at 4:44 PM on December 13, 2011


From my point of view, it seems like a chunk of this money is going straight towards employing a huge new middle level of bureaucrats - marketing/PR staff, MBA visionizers and strategizers, student advisors and hand-holders - in order to attract the customers and keep them happy and give them a 'good experience.'

This is also a great point. Plus, I bet so many professors probably would be getting harangued by little Madison's or little Tyler's parents if they got a B on a paper that mother or father felt was actually at least an A- and how dare they ruin little Maddy/Tyler's lifelong dream of becoming a ____ because a B in Classic Vietnam War Movies is definitely going to get in the way of his/her Dream.
If the prof didn't budge, they'd maybe call up a dean and make trouble.

Who needs that kind of hassle? Why not just tell everyone that they're sooo bright and awesome, and it will make their parents so happy and excited and pleased that someone figured out that little Maddy/Tyler is a genius and special, just like they always figured.
posted by anniecat at 4:56 PM on December 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


See also Academically Adrift, a recent study which showed students outside the traditional liberal arts and sciences doing demonstrably worse on measures of writing and critical thinking skills, and this paper by U Missouri economist Cory Koedel that finds average GPAs from three large schools of education a full 0.5 to 0.8 points higher than average GPAs in 12 standard departments.
posted by Apropos of Something at 4:57 PM on December 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


I wonder if the subject disparity has to do different modes of evaluation in different subjects. On the face of it, it seems like it's easier to get a range of grades on an exam in a STEM subject--lots of questions, each with the possibility for partial credit--than it would be grading essays using a rubric. So at the end of the semester, you get a broader distribution and can go down the line and see what 15% As and so on would look like. (Then you adjust because you put a grade boundary in a big clump of students, unless you're completely wedded to the distribution.) I don't know, though, I've never graded essays.

After all, you have expectations like those of Google's Marissa Mayer: "“One candidate got a C in macroeconomics…That’s troubling to me. Good students are good at all things.”

Except that she's probably looking at a pile of transcripts from people with comparable grades who didn't get a C in macro. Hell, she's probably got a transcript from someone at the same university who got As in all the same classes.

Several folks I know and have worked with from some of the different American MPP programs told me that the lowest grade they were told by professors that they were likely to get were B's. If anyone got lower than that, they would be kicked out of the program or asked to take a leave for a semester.

I don't know about MPP programs, but this is completely typical with my experience of graduate courses in two different universities. I've always understood this not as grade inflation, but as a way of dealing with the fact the university wants grades, but the department would rather not give grades at all. It's not uncommon for me to have a course that has no means of evaluation whatsoever because that's thought to be not the point. Yes, it makes transcripts fairly useless. I have no idea if we ended up in this norm because of grade inflation run amok or if it's always been this way, but graduate courses should be set aside when worrying about grade inflation.
posted by hoyland at 4:57 PM on December 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


How can you ethically justify taking $50,000 a year from some 18 year old kid, and then telling him that you're going to fail him?

as one group of wise men once asked "Will you walk away from a fool and his money...sonny..."
posted by jonmc at 4:58 PM on December 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


Depending on the field you go into, grades may not matter as much as, say, research experience that is demonstrated through publications and recommendations. This is why a lot of students in the hard sciences who are successful are the ones who pursue extracurricular research jobs — possibly even to the exclusion of coursework, which is less important for fast-moving fields, such as life sciences, which move much, much faster than textbooks.

It's almost paradoxical — if you're not motivated to do well, grade inflation is important, because you're just there for the piece of paper at the end of the four (or more) years. If you're motivated in your area of interest, grades don't really matter, because you're already putting yourself ahead of the curve.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 4:58 PM on December 13, 2011 [4 favorites]


Hey! I assigned some of those grades back when I was a grad student at UW-Madison!
Hooray! I made some statistics!
posted by Dr. Wu at 5:00 PM on December 13, 2011 [3 favorites]


The selective small liberal arts colleges like Bowdoin, Swarthmore, etc really make getting a "high" GPA difficult with some apparent belief that "those in the know" will see the middling grades next to the name of the institution and realize that the school is highly competitive and getting average grades there still makes a student someone worthy of hiring/admitting.

What really happens I suspect is that people wonder why the hell they should hire someone with all those Bs on their transcript from a tiny school they've never heard of in some hick town in Maine.
posted by Winnemac at 5:03 PM on December 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


There may be a handful of ultra-prestigious institutions that can get away with being rigorous in their grading, but you can probably count them on both hands.
Actually, my experience is that elite colleges generally inflate more, and big state schools inflate less. I was pretty much not permitted to fail students when I TAed at a highly-selective private university, and I see Fs all the time at the big public institution where I work. Some of those students aren't doing the work, but some of them are working very hard and just can't hack it. And it's not just STEM classes. The average grade in our introductory psych and poli sci classes is about a 2.5, which is the same as the average grade in our introductory major-level chemistry classes.

I have really mixed feelings about releasing this data to students. On the one hand, I am sure that it would contribute to grade inflation, especially in general education classes. Professors will know that the key to getting students to enroll in their classes is to give high grades. On the other hand, I see a lot of students make poor choices because of incorrect assumptions about which courses are easy, and I'd like to think that they'd be better off if they took psychology because they're actually interested in psychology, rather than because they're under the mistaken impression that psych will be an easy A.
posted by craichead at 5:04 PM on December 13, 2011 [5 favorites]


The data in the University of Wisconsin link are interesting, but I would point out that even if you were to normalize the grade distributions across majors, you still have a problem. Namely, an underlying assumption would be that the students in different majors are equally capable students, which didn't seem to be the case in my experience (I would note that although capability seemed to be correlated with STEM majors, it was far from a direct mapping--I would guess that philosophy students, for example, were at least as good across-the-board students as the engineers that I knew). Furthermore, even within majors you have the problem that some courses are just generally tougher than others, yet you don't want the students who take those classes to be "punished" in their grades.

I'm a big college sports fan, so the example I would use would be if the NCAA basketball tournament decided to select two teams from every conference for the championship tournament. Here, you've already equalized the "distribution" (all conferences must have a .500 average winning percentage in conference games), but not accounted for the fact that the ACC is a lot tougher than the Ohio Valley Conference.

Realistically, there's going to have to be some "quick" way to rank students (see, for example, the Metafilter thread a few weeks back about recruiting at elite firms, and how quickly employers must make the "interview/no interview" decision), and currently we use GPA. I think a lot of the grade inflation problems here would diminish considerably if we took a lesson from sports and instead of ranking people based on "simple" GPA, we ranked them based on something like Elo rankings, which look pretty accurate--maybe Anand is "better" at chess than Carlsen, maybe not, but it's pretty damn easy to see that they're both a heck of a lot better than someone who blows away his city championship with a great record.

A system like this, I think, would reduce a lot of the bad incentives for both students and teachers regarding grade inflation. Students would be rewarded for getting good grades in tough classes filled with good students, much like how college basketball teams from weaker conferences try to boost their ratings by playing challenging teams from stronger conferences. Teachers, on the other hand, would no longer feel as much pressure to conform to an arbitrary curve--if the 50 students in your organic chemistry class are really great and should average a B+, well, it will come across in that they consistently outperformed their peers in other classes. I can't say I've worked through all the implications of such a system, but it's hard for me to imagine that it wouldn't be a tremendous improvement over the status quo.
posted by dsfan at 5:08 PM on December 13, 2011


Grade inflation on the whole is almost certainly a bad thing, as it compresses the grading curve and makes accurate assessment more difficult. Sure, STEM fields have lower grades in general, but that's also expected - think of the difference in attitude you would see toward a communication major with a 2.7 and an optical engineer. The optical engineer is probably acceptable if not outstanding, but a communications major with a 2.7 could easily be a total disaster.
posted by Mitrovarr at 5:09 PM on December 13, 2011



I went to UW-Madison, and got a degree in electrical engineering in 2007.

One of my professors said that he graded in such a way that an equal number of people will get A as fail. Most would get C's.

That makes sense hamburger, since you'd expect a perfect distribution of grades in a self selected group of about 45 people.

Anyway, I was pulling a good solid B. Until the drop date, when everyone with a C or lower dropped the class. Then it was a D.

My point - You either know the material or you don't. In STEM classes, this is pretty easy to asses. And no lie, I was a pretty mediocre student - and bad at math, to boot - but you simply will not make it through the higher level classes unless you understand the fundementals. Grades simply don't matter much.

I am of the opinion that they should go to a Fail/Pass/Honors system. At least in the STEM fields.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 5:09 PM on December 13, 2011


Actually, my experience is that elite colleges generally inflate more, and big state schools inflate less.

Yes, I actually agree with this. And I think at least some of it has to do with the customer-provider relationship schools develop with their students as they get more and more expensive.

I was thinking more that among private institutions, only a handful can rely on their reputations buoying their grads' lower GPAs. UChicago springs to mind as an example. Even so, those kids are at a disadvantage in many ways, such as law school admissions, which tend to weigh numerical GPAs really heavily regardless of the difficulty of a student's school or course of study. And I've heard whispers that even the famed Chicago academic rigor is becoming a thing of the past....
posted by dixiecupdrinking at 5:11 PM on December 13, 2011


How can you ethically justify taking $50,000 a year from some 18 year old kid, and then telling him that you're going to fail him?

If a kid walks into a restaurant and orders food then doesn't eat it, should the restaurant bear the cost?
posted by biffa at 5:15 PM on December 13, 2011 [5 favorites]


The Navy's evaluation and fitness report has a numerical portion, from 1.0 to 5.0, in various traits. You get a trait average at the end, and right next to it is your boss's cumulative average of all the people he or she has reviewed.

It's a nice little indicator as to that person's trend and how they evaluate people. Might be a useful piece of information on a GPA.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 5:19 PM on December 13, 2011


If a kid walks into a restaurant and orders food then doesn't eat it, should the restaurant bear the cost?

Imagine there are many restaurants next to each other on a campus.

Scenario A: No, the restaurant should not bear the cost.

Scenario B: Kid tells all his friends that he ordered food, didn't eat it, was forced to pay, and that sucks man. Kid and his friends decide to go to other restaurants. The president of the campus tells the manager of that particular restaurant that their customers and takings are down. The manager of the restaurant tells the wait staff that it is in their own interest not to ask kids who don't eat for money.

This is actually quite an apt analogy, as many universities are increasingly market what they 'sell' as so much educational pizza. And if you market things as pizza for long enough, then customers eventually expect pizza to be delivered.
posted by carter at 5:22 PM on December 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


This is somewhat orthogonal to the post subject, but at U of Toronto the school of education (OISE) has now developed an M.Ed. and Ph.D. in 'higher education', which is largely populated by U of T administrators who appear to basically receive graduate degrees for writing about their jobs. All paid for by the university, of course. It's like a diploma mill for non-academic staff.
posted by sevenyearlurk at 5:31 PM on December 13, 2011


The unspoken assumption here is that comparisons of grades between majors and between schools matter. I interview a lot of law students and junior lawyers for associate positions, and I would never assume that a 3.8 at one school is automatically better than a 3.6 at another. Does anyone believe that? Instead, I look at accomplishments, publications, research, etc., and if possible, compare grades within the subject's peer group at his or her school. This is what I never understood about grade inflation. If you don't show me the distribution of grades for the subject's peers, then I don't really care about the reported grade.
posted by monju_bosatsu at 5:32 PM on December 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


The unspoken assumption here is that comparisons of grades between majors and between schools matter.
Many of my students lose their merit scholarships if they fall below a certain GPA (which is not-infrequently a 3.0), and they get kicked out of the university if they stay below a 2.0 for more than a semester. Since those rules aren't adjusted for difficulty, students in certain majors can be pretty significantly penalized.
posted by craichead at 5:37 PM on December 13, 2011


"The solution to grade inflation is clearly to lower the interest rate of classes."
- Ben Stein, noted* economist and boring person
* note: crappy
posted by Riki tiki at 5:38 PM on December 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


If a kid walks into a restaurant and orders food then doesn't eat it, should the restaurant bear the cost?

What if a kid walks into a restaurant and orders a steak, and then the restaurant says, "Okay, you pay first." The kid thinks this is a bit unusual for a place this nice, but says, "How much?" The waiter tells him, "$1,000." The kid says, "$1,000?!" The waiter gives him a grim, knowing smile and offers to spot him the grand, at 8% interest. The kid balks, and the waiter says, "Well, you could always go next door to McDonald's. But they're charging $500 for a hamburger these days. And you'll still be hungry afterward."

So the kid goes okay fine, gimme the steak, I promise I'll pay you back, because he's so hungry, and nobody has ever taught him how to cook for himself or suggested that he should learn. And then the steak comes and it turns out he's never actually eaten steak before, and he doesn't really like it, maybe he should have been a vegetarian, and anyway it's charred to shit and doesn't look anything like the description on the menu.

And ten years ago the steak cost $20, except that the restaurant has established this new practice where, while the kid is still sitting there wondering why he ordered this steak, the restaurant has already cashed his $1,000 and spent $750 of it to hire an ad agency to put up enormous billboards of juicy, perfectly cooked steaks strategically placed so that hungry people will see them.

So the kid gets up the nerve to ask for his money back because he just got gouged on this inedible hunk of meat, but the waiter's ignoring him now, pretending he can't hear the kid, which is plausible because there's hundreds of other kids just streaming in the door, trying to order this fucking steak, and for every one that can fit in the restaurant they have to turn away four others, so eventually the kid just sits back down. Obviously, everyone else thinks this steak is so delicious and good for you and totally worth the price, so he better just sit down and eat it even though he can barely keep it down.

Ahem.
posted by dixiecupdrinking at 5:40 PM on December 13, 2011 [16 favorites]


The data clearly shows that students in STEM courses at Madison receive markedly lower grades than students in education courses.

Yeah, but the education students will spend the rest of their lives being pissed on by a system that doesn't care, while the STEM students will have high paying jobs in the tech industry.

Y'know what? Fuck it. Let 'em have their grades.
posted by Afroblanco at 5:41 PM on December 13, 2011


UChicago springs to mind as an example. Even so, those kids are at a disadvantage in many ways, such as law school admissions, which tend to weigh numerical GPAs really heavily regardless of the difficulty of a student's school or course of study. And I've heard whispers that even the famed Chicago academic rigor is becoming a thing of the past....

My friends applying to law school are freaking out about their GPAs, but at the same time, friends who have gotten into law school seem to do nothing but party nowadays since law school apparently isn't as rigorous as their undergraduate time at UChicago.

The academic rigor is still alive, I assure you, but quite possibly dying a very slow and prolonged death. When I talk to friends about similar classes they're taking at flagship state schools or other "prestigious" colleges, I'm still talking about some stuff they have no idea what they are (like delta epsilon proofs). Even though UChicago may not be as rigorous as before, it is still more rigorous than most other colleges. I have no idea how it was like a decade or so ago though.

I believe most classes are curved to a B- right now. A's are still really only given out if you really worked hard for it and did really well in the class. They're not promised to us, much to the dismay of my GPA.

I would never assume that a 3.8 at one school is automatically better than a 3.6 at another. Does anyone believe that?

I do!! I've heard it from a career counselor at my school that if you decide to apply to graduate school/jobs with a lower GPA from my university, most graduate admissions programs and employers will automatically add about 0.1 to our GPAs because it has a reputation for being a tough school. Graduating with anything above a 3.8 is extremely rare and usually only go to the kids who seriously deserve it.
posted by astapasta24 at 5:45 PM on December 13, 2011


dixiecupdrinking: I think you do raise an interesting point and one that I would like to see given more consideration as my own country moves to putting the onus for fees on the student. Specifically, the 18 year old student is an unsophisticated consumer; they have no experience of buying a product in this particular market, their access to good information is limited and the people they know are also not sophisticated (in the consumer sense) and are unlikely to have wide experience of different products. Essentially the student will only have branding and some metrics which can be manipulated by the providers to go on, and much of this information is relevant at the corporate level rather than the course the student is actually buying. Its bollocks really.
posted by biffa at 5:56 PM on December 13, 2011


At least in my university, it doesn't make a ton of sense to compare "STEM" with "education." (And actually, various STEM departments work really differently. Some, like engineering, are selective, which means that only capable students ever get into the department, while others rely on weed-out classes to dissuade students who can't handle the work.) The education program is selective. Students have to take a bunch of courses, get good grades, and apply, and then only after they're accepted they can take classes in the education department. Also, the state requires teachers to have a certain undergraduate GPA, and education students who don't achieve that GPA can't teach in public schools. The education program has a pretty massive incentive to inflate grades of students who have been admitted to the program, because any student who falls below the state minimum is going to be unemployable. They would tell you that they only accept students who can do the work, and that's why those students all get high grades. I don't know that I entirely believe that, but I can tell you that I have an awful lot of students try and fail to gain acceptance to the education program. I don't know how it works at other schools, but it has not been my experience than any dingbat can become a teacher.
posted by craichead at 5:56 PM on December 13, 2011 [3 favorites]


Oh man, I can't link to mefi's own escabeche's take on grade inflation because he already did it!

One of the rating sites -- not ratemyprofessors.com, one of the knockoffs that are actually better because the students who use them seem to rate based on more than just easiness -- has what they claim are actual grade distributions for the school where I teach. I don't know how they get these. But they are at least approximately right from my classes and look like they're from reasonable large samples (you don't get, say, "20% A, 40% B, 40% C" from five students) which makes me think the registrar's office might cooperate with them somehow.

My department has a recommended grade distribution that we follow. It's not enforced, but the chair at least sends out a reminder around this time each semester. I think the purpose is at least partially to stop students from choosing an instructor in a class we offer in multiple sections solely based on grades.
posted by madcaptenor at 6:03 PM on December 13, 2011


The unspoken assumption here is that comparisons of grades between majors and between schools matter.

As a weird data point, the school I go to now (the University of Alberta), used to operate on a 9-point system (as opposed to letter grades/ 4-point system). They changed a few years ago to the 4 point system, and the main reason I've heard from administrators was so that such comparisons could be made.

Apparently alumni/industry/consultants/whoever told the U to get with everyone else's program or suffer diminished enrollment (or at least that was the rationale that percolated down from on high).
posted by selenized at 6:19 PM on December 13, 2011


I've taught at very elite schools, and also taught at not-so-elite schools. In my experience, the elite schools had higher grade distributions - means around a B or B-, compared to means around a C or so. The elite schools also failed many fewer students.

However, I think there is actually more grade inflation at the less-elite ones.

At the elite schools I have taught at, all of the courses were much harder. Even if the material was ostensibly the same, the level of assessment was much more rigorous. At an easier university, you might have 70% of the questions be focused on making sure they understood the basic ideas, and only 10% asking the student to synthesise the ideas and apply them to new cases - and most students were unable to answer that 10%. At an elite university, often over 60% of the questions were the difficult/synthesis questions. There was also more work required, and often harder work. Even despite all of that, relatively few students fail at those places, because most take their studies very seriously and do whatever they can to master the material. At easier universities, especially in the first years, it's routine to fail as much as 25% of the class because they just don't show up or do their work.

Bottom line, you really cannot look at the distribution of grades and conclude much about whether there is grade inflation or whether classes are easier. The real question is about what material is taught and what level it is evaluated on.

[Note that I fully believe that most STEM courses have harder material and more rigorous evaluation than most education courses; this is a general point I'm making.]
posted by forza at 6:30 PM on December 13, 2011 [5 favorites]


How can you ethically justify taking $50,000 a year from some 18 year old kid, and then telling him that you're going to fail him?

Because the student didn't pay for the grade; the student paid to attend the University or College. You might as well say, "someone paid $800 to take the bar exam; how can you fail them?" The answer is that they didn't know the material well enough. I fail comparatively few students, since i mostly teach Freshmen and do as much intervention as I can, but the ones who really want to fail get to.

I am against grading on a curve for any purpose. Either the students meets your expectations or s/he doesn't. Some semesters you will have dedicated students who earn a disproportionate number of As, some years you will have a disproportionate number of failures. Curving is just an admission that you are poor at assessment and probably should not be teaching. Additionally, if large numbers of students are failing your class or dropping for fear of failing, perhaps you should be reconsidering how you teach.... It's like relationships; if everyone you date is a jerk, you might be doing something a bit off....
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:49 PM on December 13, 2011 [4 favorites]


Because the student didn't pay for the grade; the student paid to attend the University or College.

I'm sorry, but I just don't think this reflects reality. They may not be paying for a particular grade in a particular class, but they are certainly paying for a degree. No one would pay current tuition rates if they did not feel it entitled them to a degree that would then have economic value. Universities cannot continue to charge what they are charging and pretend that they are not in the business of selling degrees and that their students are not in the business of purchasing them. The sooner everyone comes to terms with this reality, the better.
posted by dixiecupdrinking at 7:18 PM on December 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


Student walks into a restaurant, eats, doesn't pay for meal.
Waiter and manager ask student to pay. Student files lawsuit for harassment, posts negative review on Yelp and "Rate my Restaurant." Goes on to complain to restaurant owner. Student given complementary coupons as an apology.

Waiter and owner are forced to attend sensitivity training, and take classes in diner success. Waiter, hoping to become chef is never promoted. Manager is given worst shifts and retires.
New manager and other waiters, not being idiots, take note and alter behavior accordingly.
posted by cccorlew at 7:24 PM on December 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


Letter grades are way too coarse. Grades that directly relate to GPA are more informative. For example, a 4.0 is an A and a 3.0 is a B. Somewhere between an A and a B you can get a grade of 3.5. Myself, I was a solid 3.1415 student, not so much because I cared about my GPA, but because I was curious if I could get the first four digits of π.
posted by twoleftfeet at 7:36 PM on December 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


astapasta24:Even though UChicago may not be as rigorous as before, it is still more rigorous than most other colleges. I have no idea how it was like a decade or so ago though.

It was pretty rigorous, I'd say. Nearly every major had to take through Calc 3, (when I started in the mid-90s they let a few majors off without it). Engineers and physicists had a pretty rigorous sequence, but us math majors basked in the glory of the big black book, then onto baby Rubin for Analysis. Whenever I run into another graduate of the program we sigh collectively and share stories about how much easier the first couple years of grad school were than we thought they'd be. I remember meeting other math students when I started grad school who talked about how they "don't like proofs". That didn't make any sense to someone who lived and breathed by mathematical rigor for four years.

On topic, as an instructor I can't pass a student who doesn't understand, even if they try, because it's a pre-requisite course. A student's grade, among other things, is a way for instructors to communicate with each other about the student's grasp of the material. Sometimes I wish I could just give a check, check +, or check - and be done with it.
posted by monkeymadness at 7:45 PM on December 13, 2011


Several folks I know and have worked with from some of the different American MPP programs told me that the lowest grade they were told by professors that they were likely to get were B's. If anyone got lower than that, they would be kicked out of the program or asked to take a leave for a semester.

In my experience, a lot of grad classes pretty much operate on a pass/fail system, because most people's funding is tied to their GPA. B or above is passing; anything below is a pretty clear Fuck You.
posted by Forktine at 7:45 PM on December 13, 2011


Sometimes I wish I could just give a check, check +, or check - and be done with it.

I'd get it down to a ☺ or a ☹. Happy or sad.

Any sufficiently refined grading system should come down to a two-party system, with months of dialogue before.
posted by twoleftfeet at 7:57 PM on December 13, 2011


B or above is passing; anything below is a pretty clear Fuck You.

In my first semester of grad school I was worried that I was going to fail one of my classes.

I got a B-minus. I was so happy! I didn't fail! I didn't even get a C!

Then I remembered that I had to have a 3.0 average to stay in the program, so a B-minus was basically saying "if you did this poorly in all your classes it would be right to kick you out".

And that was true. (Fortunately my grades in my other classes were better, so I was not kicked out.)
posted by madcaptenor at 7:58 PM on December 13, 2011


As a colleague of mine said (I quoted this on AskMe before), you pay a doctor to give you an honest assessment of your condition, not to flatter your health at all means. Change "doctor" to "instructor/college," "condition" to "academic progress," and "health" to "intelligence."
posted by dhens at 8:25 PM on December 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


As a colleague of mine said (I quoted this on AskMe before), you pay a doctor to give you an honest assessment of your condition, not to flatter your health at all means. Change "doctor" to "instructor/college," "condition" to "academic progress," and "health" to "intelligence."

Not a good analogy, because in most cases external forces on the patient are not going to be affected by their physician's assessment. Grades really matter to students because they affect the rest of their lives. What a particular doctor thinks, not so much.
posted by grouse at 8:33 PM on December 13, 2011


Several folks I know and have worked with from some of the different American MPP programs told me that the lowest grade they were told by professors that they were likely to get were B's. If anyone got lower than that, they would be kicked out of the program or asked to take a leave for a semester.

I had never experienced a grading curve until I did my MPP at an Ivy. It was a weird mix of inflation and a very strict curve - anything less than a B- was considered a failing grade (if it was a required course you'd have to retake it). But on the other hand, there were very set-in-stone distributions that the grades were supposed to fall under - if memory serves, 5-15% were supposed to get As, 20-25% A-, 25-40% B+ and the rest B- or fail. You also couldn't continue with a B- average.

So on the surface, it looks like grade inflation, because no one who gets credit for a course is getting less than a B-. On the other hand, it was almost impossible to get an A in an econ or stats or international policy course, because half your classmates had been econ majors at places like University of Chicago or worked in the State Dept (of some nation, not necessarily the US).

Luckily I didn't really care about my grades as long as I learned what I needed to learn and passed, but it was still strange to me. Especially because I had gone to one of those small liberal arts schools that are full of nerds where grades weren't that important because it was assumed that we were all pretty passionate about our work (and yeah, I was a humanties major, but I definitely pulled as many all-nighters as my friends in CS, so there).
posted by lunasol at 8:35 PM on December 13, 2011


With all due respect lunasol no, no you didn't.
posted by karmiolz at 8:47 PM on December 13, 2011


What a particular doctor thinks, not so much.

Unless their insurance rates go up as a result.

(Disclaimer: despite nominally being an adult, I don't really understand how health insurance works.)
posted by madcaptenor at 8:56 PM on December 13, 2011


I consider myself a lax grader who has passed students who didn't deserve it, strixus, but I've certainly failed students who put in effort too. I cannot imagine doing otherwise because some student just aren't even mildly talented.

Any first year course should hand out around 30%+ failures, unless your talking truly elite schools like Princeton, Oxford, MIT, École Polytechnique, etc., or teaching an honors class. Ain't rocket science, just basic calculous.
posted by jeffburdges at 9:06 PM on December 13, 2011


There is an educational mission of a university that I fear is fundamentally perverted by exorbitant tuition.. or America's insane for-profit schools like University of Phoenix that suck up 80% of federal student aid.

In America, education is a private service a student purchases from a university to maximize their own chances for their goals while minimizing their own personal risk. In Europe, education is a public service provided to society by the state, which helps society sort students into productive career paths. Examples : European students cannot simply retake courses many times. American medical schools don't fail out nearly as many students as you'd expect. etc.
posted by jeffburdges at 9:07 PM on December 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


Unless their insurance rates go up as a result.

In many states, raising an insured's rates like that would be illegal. It certainly would be in California.

In any case, it proves my point: if my doctor's opinion were to affect my insurance rates, I would be much more likely to look for the doctor who was going to get me the lowest rates.
posted by grouse at 9:14 PM on December 13, 2011


Check this out. This is the math class I failed.


Section__ #__avg GPA ___A___AB____B___ BC___ C_____D___F
001 _____34__2.559____5.9__14.7__29.4__8.8___29.4__11.8__0
002 _____27__2.389____14.8__3.7__29.6__7.4___22.2__14.8_7.4

See the difference in Fs and As ? Same prof. Same tests. Same Homework. Different TAs.

The kids in section 2 who got an A had schedules that let them attend the section 1 TA help sessions.

The kids who got Ds and Fs in section 2.... they were fucked. We had a TA that sucked. He was fresh off the boat from China - and he was smart guy, but lacked both English and teaching skills. Worse than that, was the instructor who did. not. care.

If you were good at math then the math would pass you and if you were not worthy the math would not save you.

I took the same class a few weeks later. The same material, but an instructor who wasn't a douche and a TA who could speak english. I got a B.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 9:29 PM on December 13, 2011


I had a friend who took a lot of hard classes in college instead of the easy As. Encouraged by idealistic parents and teachers. She did fine, but not straight As. She says it was the stupidest thing she ever did. I did it to some extent in law school as well and I couldn't agree more.
posted by whoaali at 9:35 PM on December 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


With all due respect lunasol no, no you didn't.

I didn't what?
posted by lunasol at 10:04 PM on December 13, 2011


exogenus, I'm a mudder too. And the fact that it took being above average to get an above average grade was rough, but I feel like it was worth it. Of course, I didn't go to grad school, but it let us be proud what we did...

(also, you beat me to being the first one of us to talk about the lack of grade inflation at mudd. It was certainly the first thing I thought of...)
posted by flaterik at 10:33 PM on December 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


astapasta24: When I talk to friends about similar classes they're taking at flagship state schools or other "prestigious" colleges, I'm still talking about some stuff they have no idea what they are (like delta epsilon proofs).

Yep, maths is a good example if you want to defend the rigor of the U of C's general-education requirements. If you want any undergraduate degree from the U of C, you'll have to take the placement exam and write a delta-epsilon proof there, or take calculus and write a bunch of them there, or else take 112-113 and write similarly difficult proofs in number theory, geometry, group theory and topology. Of course, there's miles and miles between a proof for 130s and a proof for the 160s and a proof for 160s (Inquiry-Based-Learning), but for some reasonable definition of "proof" you will not get out of the U of C without at some point understanding how to write a mathematical proof.

However, maths are the exception that highlights the general decline of the gen-ed requirements. The humanities requirement used to be a single course, called Intro to Humanities, which assigned a paper every single week and did the canonical dead Greek men sort of curriculum. Now, you can take "Language and the Mind." To be clear, I took Language and the Mind. It's an interesting course which is taught by some top-notch linguistics professors and which apparently recruits quite a number of freshmen into the department. But by no means is it a substitute for Intro to Humanities.

And, of course, don't even get me started about core bio or physical sciences. I've read course evaluation books from back when course evaluations were bound into books, and as far as I can tell the science requirements were rigged from the beginning with easy not-for-majors courses.

Anyway, the point is, the U of C is hardly some bastion of unflagging academic rigor. It has some very good professors teaching very rigorous courses to very smart, very diligent students, but it also has any number of ways for sufficiently unprepared or apathetic students to cheat themselves out of fifty thousand a year. And I don't even think that's a recent development, really. At most, it's gotten more noticeable in recent years.

lunasol, you haven't pulled as many all-nighters as a CS undergrad. Or maybe you have, in which case I'll ask you the same question I ask myself every time: for God's sake, man, why?
posted by d. z. wang at 10:58 PM on December 13, 2011


I have never really been able to learn anything I didn't enjoy studying for its own sake-- enjoy ecstatically, in fact.

All this elaborate creaking and clanking-- and stinking-- apparatus of rewards and punishments embodied in the grading system was at best irrelevant to me, and more often the worst impediment I had to overcome in order to learn.

If I were graduating from high school now, I would be in a state of complete despair, because at no point in my life could I ever have forced myself to do all the things now required to get into college.
posted by jamjam at 11:21 PM on December 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


lunasol, you haven't pulled as many all-nighters as a CS undergrad. Or maybe you have, in which case I'll ask you the same question I ask myself every time: for God's sake, man, why?

Well, I only know from my CS friends - who, I should point out, were friends with humanities majors. :) But I would say we pulled a similar number of all nighters.

Why? Well, contrary to the common metafilter idea about humanities majors, my classes involved a lot of work. I did gender studies and history and took lots of theory classes (and yeah, I often asked myself "whyyyy?" at 3AM when I was trying to write a 10 page analysis of Foucault). I also did a shit-ton of reading and writing, and most of it was very dense. And no, you don't have to read everything, but when the class has 5 people and it's Advanced Critical Theory and the professor is your advisor, yeah, you're going to do most of the reading. And the writing, oh god. At the end of one semester, I counted up all my writing assignments - the research papers, the essay-based take-home tests, the weekly response papers - and realized that I'd written 300 pages that semester. It did make me a really good writer, which is a skill I use in my current job.

I know not all humanties majors have workloads like that. I went to a school that's known for its social sciences and humanities programs and takes them seriously. For instance, I remember being surprised when I graduated and found out many people think of poli sci as a joke, because at my school it was a seriously scary major.
posted by lunasol at 11:26 PM on December 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


I had a friend who took a lot of hard classes in college instead of the easy As. Encouraged by idealistic parents and teachers. She did fine, but not straight As. She says it was the stupidest thing she ever did. I did it to some extent in law school as well and I couldn't agree more.

This is really odd to me. What's the point of college? Do you actually learn something, or is it just to get a GPA to put on your resume? Or does no-one in the USA actually use anything they learned at college at their job? I sure do.
posted by dave99 at 1:35 AM on December 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


dave99, I don't know about the U.S., but in Canada it's even worse. Not only are you absolutely required to get an A in order to list it on your resume (or risk laughter for the fraction of a second resume readers will look at your resume), but you ALSO have to have a degree in the exact trade you're going into.

If years of reading posts about Comp Sci on Metafilter have taught me nothing else, it's that in the U.S. you can become a Software Engineer, or even a mere programmer (Engineer is a legal designation here), with a degree in Advanced Basketweaving. Such a thing would never, ever, ever, happen in a million billion years in Canada.

Not that I'm bitter.
posted by Yowser at 3:23 AM on December 14, 2011


I'm sorry, but I just don't think this reflects reality. They may not be paying for a particular grade in a particular class, but they are certainly paying for a degree. No one would pay current tuition rates if they did not feel it entitled them to a degree that would then have economic value. Universities cannot continue to charge what they are charging and pretend that they are not in the business of selling degrees and that their students are not in the business of purchasing them. The sooner everyone comes to terms with this reality, the better.

Actually, the sooner everyone gives up on this nonsensical and corrosive idea, the better it will be for everyone. Again, attending a university/college does not entitle you to a degree any more than entering a race entitles you to winning or even finishing. Tuition is a chance to participate, not a guarantee of success, because the student has to pay not only in money, but also time, effort, attention, intelligence, and so on.

Even if you buy into the idea that "higher education exists solely to get people jobs," employers don't really want people with degrees, they want people with skills and aptitudes. "Purchasing degrees" means that the student does not have to master any knowledge or skills in order to get the degree. So, adopting your approach would merely, within a decade or two, destroy the value of any degree as a "certificate of employabilty."

Additionally, many of my students have a lot of problem with their own sense of agency. They do not want to accept that their decisions have consequences, from deciding to put off work until the last minute to failing to seek out university services designed to assist them. This does not mean that students do not have more complicated lives now that, say, 3 years ago. In many ways they do (although not all; some things don't change that much). Part of my job, as a professor, is to help students make better choices, not just in my class or at the University but in general. Removing the component of work from the degree, while superficially attractive to students, would, in the end, rob them of a major chance to develop their own agency, which they will need after graduation.

Lastly, "pay for a degree" would make degrees nothing more than class status markers. Since work would no longer be necessary, scholarships and their apparatus wouldn't be necessary (nor would actual faculty, for that matter). The poor could go to state schools where they would get state degrees that would entitle them to state-level jobs. The better off could go to private schools where they would get private degrees that would entitle them to private-level jobs. The wealthy could go to elite schools where they would get elite degrees that would entitle them to elite-level jobs. We could just do away with social mobility all together in our race back to the Gilded Age. Which, I am guessing, is not your intent.

I could go on, but I am in the middle of a two-day pedagogy workshop, and I need to do my own homework....
posted by GenjiandProust at 3:51 AM on December 14, 2011 [11 favorites]


GenjiandProust, if I could favourite that comment a hundred times, I would. Yes, yes, yes.
posted by forza at 3:57 AM on December 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


I don't agree with the "pay for a degree" approach either, or the students that espouse it. However, in reality, this is what many universities are increasingly selling, including to overseas students (at least where I am).

Not all students take this attitude of course; but over the last few years I have seen student enrollment go up, overall student quality go down, class sizes go up without concomitant investment in infrastructure by the administration, and a sense of entitlement increase (at least among a minority).

It's just one of those things I have to cope with. There are still many terrific students. And of course receiving excellent and thought-provoking student projects at the end of a term still makes this more than worthwhile. However, universities are admitting more and more whose main qualification is the ability to write a check. I sometimes feel sorry for them; they shouldn't be there, they don't want to be there; and I can think of better things to spend $200,000 and four years of your time on.
posted by carter at 4:08 AM on December 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


The kids in section 2 who got an A had schedules that let them attend the section 1 TA help sessions.

The kids who got Ds and Fs in section 2.... they were fucked. We had a TA that sucked. He was fresh off the boat from China - and he was smart guy, but lacked both English and teaching skills. Worse than that, was the instructor who did. not. care.


I am obligated to fight the 'I failed because my TA was Chinese' meme. (I've already gone on this rant.) How do you explain the fact that more kids in Section 2 got As, despite it being a smaller section? (Looks like 2 As in Section 1 from 34 students, compared to 4 in Section 2 from 27 students, if I read the chart right.)

To be honest, I'm pretty comfortable saying that Section 2 was smaller because students dropped because the TA was Chinese or never enrolled in the first place. (I get hit by the 'foreign name' effect. I still end up with a bigger class than a Chinese colleague when we're the only two options.) I'm also pretty comfortable saying that Section 2 had students who should have dropped, didn't and decided to blame the TA. I'm sure this week I'll fail some students that I haven't seen for most of the semester who will blame me or the professor, as happens every semester. (Hell, our perceived foreignness might get blamed.) Maybe we suck, but turning up is the first step to not failing.
posted by hoyland at 5:18 AM on December 14, 2011 [3 favorites]


I don't agree with the "pay for a degree" approach either, or the students that espouse it. However, in reality, this is what many universities are increasingly selling, including to overseas students (at least where I am).

This is why I think it's important for faculty senates (where they exist) maintain extreme vigilance over the curriculum. Neither the degree nor the students should be treated as commodities or profit centers, no matter how attractive that might be to the short-term economic standing of the institution. Because, in the long term, it will erode everything valuable in higher education -- the end result of treating education as a commodity is to eliminate its value as a commodity.

Not all students take this attitude of course; but over the last few years I have seen student enrollment go up, overall student quality go down, class sizes go up without concomitant investment in infrastructure by the administration, and a sense of entitlement increase (at least among a minority).


I would be with you here, except I am pretty sure I have heard this particular complaint every year since maybe 1500BC. Some years, the incoming class seems bad, and, some years, there seem to be measurable reasons for it (the incoming class was increased by lowering standards), but often it seems to be a sort of statistical aberration that sorts itself out in a year or so as students figure out what they are doing.

However, universities are admitting more and more whose main qualification is the ability to write a check. I sometimes feel sorry for them; they shouldn't be there, they don't want to be there; and I can think of better things to spend $200,000 and four years of your time on.

This is definitely not true for my institution. If anything, we have tightened up admissions, and, assuming SATs, GREs and similar metrics, our incoming classes this year should perform better than previous iterations. We shall see....
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:40 AM on December 14, 2011


Lastly, "pay for a degree" would make degrees nothing more than class status markers.

Ding ding ding.
posted by dixiecupdrinking at 5:57 AM on December 14, 2011


Sorry for the smug quote cherry-picking on my part there.

GenjiandProust, let me be clear – I'm not advocating that universities get in the business of selling degrees. I'm describing what I see as the current state of affairs. When I say that everyone needs to recognize this, I mean so that we can get off this track.

You're approaching this problem from a faculty perspective, which of course makes sense. I think you're 100% correct about the pitfalls of getting into a model where students are customers. However, no amount of curriculum stringency or tightening of grading standards can change the fact that once the students are in your class, they have already entered into an unspoken relationship with the school: Their money for a Whatever University degree with their name on it.

If schools were to be devoted to their educational missions above all else, they would have to tell their incoming students, "Hey, we are going to throw a lot of hard stuff at you, and you're going to have to work your ass off. For some of you, it will be categorically more challenging than anything you've done in your lives. Some of you will fail classes, because your grades will reflect your performance. If this happens, you will have to repeat those classes, while continuing to pay tuition. Your GPA will be poor and will ruin your chances of getting into a decent professional school."

What are the chances schools ever send out that note with their first semester invoice for $20,000?

I think that universities are all engaged in a big self-deception. They cannot charge people six figures and still believe that what they are offering is merely a certain academic experience. The price of tuition is much higher than the price at which most people value that academic experience. People are going to college because they have to have a degree in order to signal that they are employable. Not to say they aren't there to learn, too; but what justifies the financial outlay is the degree, not the learning.

Schools simply cannot feign blindness to this reality and kick people out or give them failing marks without reneging on this unspoken quid pro quo they've established with their students. The solution has to start with making college affordable. The reform can't happen by making policy changes within a school, because once students are already there, it's too late.
posted by dixiecupdrinking at 6:22 AM on December 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


If schools were to be devoted to their educational missions above all else, they would have to tell their incoming students, "Hey, we are going to throw a lot of hard stuff at you, and you're going to have to work your ass off. For some of you, it will be categorically more challenging than anything you've done in your lives. Some of you will fail classes, because your grades will reflect your performance. If this happens, you will have to repeat those classes, while continuing to pay tuition. Your GPA will be poor and will ruin your chances of getting into a decent professional school."

Wouldn't it be a kick to see that comment emblazoned across the homepage of the local University? And right below it would be a picture of a student, alone, in a small dark room illuminated by a solitary lamp, studying very hard, with sweat on his or her brow.
posted by Seymour Zamboni at 7:40 AM on December 14, 2011


I am a University professor (I have answered various related AskMes about my field). I have taught at two different universities, a regional public and now a urban research institution. I went to a private liberal arts undergrad and one of the biggest R1s for grad school.

Reading these comments, I seem to come across the same few assumptions repeatedly. One important assumption being made is that going to a university costs every student $100,000 for four years. Both of the schools I have taught at, in two different states, have yearly tuitions under $6,000 (or extremely close, as I have not checked on my previous school's tuition recently). Both have appeared on US News & World Report lists of Top 25 for their region or Top 10 up-and-coming nationwide. If a student took out student loans for the entirety of their tuition, plus their rent, plus food, they would still probably owe under $50,000 after four years. That is a significant amount of money, yes, but at both of my schools somewhere over 60% of the students receive some sort of financial aid. At my previous school, as much as 75% of the students received some sort of reduction in the tuition that got the average closer to $4,000. A huge chunk of college costs goes into the living expectations of incoming students, as well as the generally inflated cost of real estate. (I am going to do the "uphill in the snow both ways" bit, but when I was a student in the 90s, even as a Senior, I lived in a concrete room that barely fit my bed and that had dorm style showers down the hall. Those kinds of dorms are now routinely torn down to provide students with apartment-style suites.)

There are universities in every state that probably have similar costs to the publics I described. Not every school, or even close to every school, costs the same as UChicago or Princeton or Notre Dame, etc. etc.

Also, with regards to grade inflation itself, one missing metric is the fact that most public institutions have retention rates that hover around 55-60% if they are doing well. What happens to those other 40-45% of students? Having taught introductory courses in my discipline, I would argue that more than 50% of the students who leave do so because of bad grades. So when we look at graduating students' GPAs, they are going to skew 2.5 and above. Most universities put students on probation for having less than a 2.5 anyway. I now mostly teach Junior and Senior level students and they are generally the students who have stuck with the program because of a combination of ability and effort. I still give some justified Cs in these advanced classes, but the student profile is radically different than the intro classes I have taught.
posted by Slothrop at 7:48 AM on December 14, 2011 [3 favorites]


The "foreign name" effect is strong enough that one of my colleagues, who is Indian, and whose native language is English, and whose English is probably better than mine, still gets students complaining that they can't understand her accent on the end-of-term evaluations. It's always amusing to me to hear her complain about this, precisely because there is nothing incomprehensible about her accent at all.

It doesn't help that she has two foreign names -- she was born with an Indian name, and married a Bulgarian, and she now uses the double last name "Desai Kasparov" (except, you know, with different names).

Meanwhile, I'm a fast-talking East Coaster who mumbles a bit and there are probably students, especially ESL ones, who legitimately do have trouble understanding me, but they don't complain because I don't have a "foreign" accent. (I have a Spanish last name, but my accent is not one you'd associate with any Spanish-speaking population.)
posted by madcaptenor at 8:00 AM on December 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm not generally a big advocate for the idea that colleges should deliberately help their students develop skills outside of what they teach, but the ability to learn something from someone sort of different from you strikes me as a super-important skill worth getting a C instead of a B to learn.
posted by Apropos of Something at 8:48 AM on December 14, 2011


There were only two major courses in which I received less than an A during my undergrad at Georgia Tech, whoaali, another math major friend failed them both. We called such courses "easy Fs" because they were literally too stupid to do the homeworks for or otherwise focus on.

We eventually discovered that our GPAs could be improved by substituting higher level undergrad or graduate courses for the stupider required course, although they never bought my argument that Hilbert Spaces should substitute for Linear Algebra. lol

There was another friend who failed out of Georgia Tech precisely because selected too easy a major, namely comp. sci., since then he's worked in fields like natural language processing without holding any degree.

In short, our educational system loses, or miss represents, many students precisely because it fails to challenge them. Your friend got good advice.
posted by jeffburdges at 10:32 AM on December 14, 2011


There are universities in every state that probably have similar costs to the publics I described. Not every school, or even close to every school, costs the same as UChicago or Princeton or Notre Dame, etc. etc.

Also, with regards to grade inflation itself, one missing metric is the fact that most public institutions have retention rates that hover around 55-60% if they are doing well. What happens to those other 40-45% of students? Having taught introductory courses in my discipline, I would argue that more than 50% of the students who leave do so because of bad grades.


Lower tuition at the publics is actually the motivation that dare not speak its name when it comes to concern about grade inflation.

Instate tuition at public schools does not cover the cost of educating the students who pay it, and yet public schools must keep admission standards for students in the state low enough to make state legislators from rural areas with poorer schools voting for their appropriations (this is the biggest unstated motivation for a big football program too, by the way).

This results in the admission of many more students than these schools can afford to graduate.

Therefore, these schools must get rid of a substantial fraction of their new admits as soon as possible, without spending much money on them, and they all do this by having required courses with hundreds of students that flunk a lot of those who take them.

Grade inflation threatens to interfere with this absolutely necessary arrangement, and higher administration will stop at nothing to prevent it, and to stamp it out should it arise.
posted by jamjam at 11:19 AM on December 14, 2011


'...enough to keep state legislators...', that is.
posted by jamjam at 11:27 AM on December 14, 2011


Our department (a physics & astronomy department at a large, state-related university) sets guidelines for the maximum number of B- to A+ grades for intro courses: 35-45% in intro physics for science & engineering majors, 40-50% in intro physics for premeds or intro astronomy for science majors, and 45-60% for intro astronomy for non-science majors (a large general education course). They give no guidelines at all for more advanced courses.

I've exceeded those guidelines a few times and not gotten too much grief for it, at least; but they do set the climate for the expectations in more advanced courses. The faculty as a whole seem resistant to relaxing any of these standards, even though I am sure they are out of line with other general ed. courses at the university.

The problem isn't always letter grades. Our graduate students are required to get a grade of 60 or higher on certain finals to advance towards a Ph.D. That final will typically contain only a few problems that you may or may not know how to do (I've taken physics exams in the past where scores around 50% were at the top of the class and yielded an A). One year, with a particularly difficult professor, more than half the students didn't get over that line; but no one else was interested in teaching that class, so he taught the same course again the next year.

What really mystifies me, however, is that I invariably have students on my grade roster who stop showing up after the first week, turn in no work, take no exams - but do not drop the class. They end up with 'F's, of course. I'm too busy writing a final to come up with a restaurant analogy for this, though :)
posted by janewman at 12:38 PM on December 14, 2011


dixiecupdrinking: You're approaching this problem from a faculty perspective, which of course makes sense. I think you're 100% correct about the pitfalls of getting into a model where students are customers. However, no amount of curriculum stringency or tightening of grading standards can change the fact that once the students are in your class, they have already entered into an unspoken relationship with the school: Their money for a Whatever University degree with their name on it.

I am approaching this as a faculty member and an administrator perspective, because that is the work I am currently doing. However, the reason that relationship is "unspoken" is because it does not exist and, except in a few isolated cases, has never existed in a reputable institution. It's possible that students (or their parents) believe it exists, but no faculty member or administrator (except, perhaps, one lost to cynicism and burnout) would agree to your idea. Not because it is "unspoken," but because it would destroy the institution.

Tuition is the fee for the teaching; the learning is very much up to the student. Anything else is the rankest sense of privilege -- money cannot buy the work, only the chance to do the work.

I think there are a variety of ways that students are exploited by higher education, but this is not one of them.

jamjam: This results in the admission of many more students than these schools can afford to graduate.

Therefore, these schools must get rid of a substantial fraction of their new admits as soon as possible, without spending much money on them, and they all do this by having required courses with hundreds of students that flunk a lot of those who take them.


I can only speak for my own school, but this is, from my considerable experience dealing with the administration, utterly untrue. We pay a great deal of attention to our retention and 6-year graduation rates, which would be terribly affected by the policy you suggest here. It is very much not in our interest to admit students we think will be unable to graduate. It would seriously affect a variety of local and national rankings and puts our accreditation in jeopardy.

Note: we obviously do matriculate students who will not graduate, but we intend for all of them to do so, and we spend a fair amount of time trying to figure out how to get to that goal.
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:45 PM on December 14, 2011


I have been at the library working for 11 hours straight on a statistics take home final and you know who works hard: Law Students. Those kids dont play.
posted by shothotbot at 6:04 PM on December 14, 2011


The "foreign name" effect is [...]

To leap into this thread a day late: I have something of an anti-"foreign name effect" preference, personally.

I have never had a foreign-accented teacher that was incomprehensible. What I have had, repeatedly, was more local profs who spend so much time (early in the course) pandering to students' whining and generally holding their hands when things "get hard" that we either have to really rush at the end or don't entirely finish the material.

None of the professors I've had who are originally from not-here do this. They treat us like adults, which I greatly appreciate, and can more easily adhere to a sensible pacing for the course.
posted by selenized at 12:27 PM on December 15, 2011


Horrible website design, but interesting analyses: http://gradeinflation.com/

Not sure if it's a good or a bad thing to be in their sweet 16 of toughest graders
posted by wenat at 2:08 PM on December 15, 2011


I just believe that colleges are exploiting the cultural meme that you need to go to college to get a job. That idea—which creates enormous, frantic demand—plus the easy availability of student loans equals nearly limitless opportunity for tuition inflation, so long as schools in a certain tier inflate together. The result is nearly extortionary. I suppose I am coming at this problem from the perspective of seeing what most law schools are currently doing to their students, but I think the same relationship exists at many private undergraduate schools. The only thing keeping the thing sustainable is the promise of that degree that opens doors; and if you've lured kids in with that promise, you've gotta let them stay on the conveyor belt with minimal effort. While I am certainly unsurprised that no faculty member or administrator would say anything along these lines, and I even believe that the vast majority might not even think it due to the cognitive dissonance involved, that doesn't mean that's not what students are paying for, and it doesn't change the fact that the present model of higher education depends on them continuing to pay for it. We'll have to agree to disagree, I suppose.
posted by dixiecupdrinking at 5:59 PM on December 15, 2011


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