Why a Transcript Change Can't Work

by Brian Sung | 5/10/94 5:00am

Over the past few decades, average grades at many colleges and universities have been steadily creeping up, causing alarm among educators who feel that students today are not learning the value of hard work. By reducing the number of bad grades given out, they say, colleges are eliminating what used to be an incentive to work hard -- fear.

Concern about grade inflation has been expressed in several articles in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Harvard Magazine and U.S. News & World Report, decrying the national decay of educational standards.

Today at many schools, a "B" (or sometimes even a "B+" or an "A-") has become the new average grade, replacing the old "Gentleman's C" -- despite the fact that a "C" is explicitly defined as "average" and "B" as "above average" work. Today, being given a "C" -- and having one's work called "merely average" -- is interpreted as a sign of failure or subpar work, which is an accurate appraisal, but inconsistent with the actual grade definitions.

All this has had the effect of creating some sort of parallel collegiate universe "reminiscent of Garrison Keillor's fictional Lake Wobegon, where 'all the children are above average,'" as John Leo observed in U.S. News. Students have come to expect reassurances of their success, even if they are not doing any better than anyone else.

Graduating with this kind of mentality, students face a major shock when they encounter the real world. Corporate recruiters and graduate schools recognize that grades don't mean what they used to, and still pick only the best students by raising their standards along with applicants' grades.

Thus, employers demand higher grades from students, and students demand higher grades from their colleges. The colleges are forced to comply in order to be able to boast high graduate placement rates, which leads employers to demand even higher grades from students, and so on. The process of grade inflation, once started, is a cyclical game that is very difficult to stop, since it is driven by the competitive instincts of very competitive people.

In the real world, unlike today's college world, the basic premise of competition has not changed -- when there is one job and several applicants, only the most worthy contender gets the job. Grade Point Averages are arguably one of the most important factors in such decisions, as well as the only factor that a college has direct control over.

This control of grading systems gives them the power (and, some would say, the responsibility) to resist inflating grades. However, with today's job market so competitive, they often choose to slightly inflate grades to give their own students a bit of an edge (and attract more students by boasting higher graduate-placement rates), which forces other schools to match the inflation so as not to fall behind.

So, if we all inflate grades, everybody wins, right? Not really, since if everybody is getting better grades, relative performance is still the same. If "B"s become the new average, and "D"s and "E"s all but disappear, then most people will be just graded on a new, narrower scale from "A" to "C." The only real change will be that there will be more students with similar grades, which would make grad schools and employers look more closely at applications. There is no clear winner or loser in competitive grade inflation -- except for students who lose because their schools choose not to inflate grades while others do.

The recent Committee on Instruction proposal to add more information to student transcripts represents an attempt to provide clearer information about students' ability. Unfortunately, it fails to do so because simply listing the number of students and the average grade given in each class doesn't necessarily reveal anything about the difficulty of the course or the ability of the student.

It can often be misleading, especially in upper-level courses where most students are very motivated and talented -- in these courses, the average grade is likely to be high, indicating an easy course, when in fact the work may be much more difficult than some easier "gut" courses which have low average grades because students put little effort into them.

The transcript modifications are also intended to make professors more "willing to grade by stricter standards when they know that grades given in courses with high class averages will not look as strong as they previously did," as COI Chair Gary Johnson told The Dartmouth.

Such changes would not only encourage highly motivated and competitive students to take more guts in which it would be easier to beat the average, but would also discourage them from taking upper-level courses in which they might learn more but would have less chance of beating the average grade. Dartmouth would thereby force students in many cases to sacrifice learning for the sake of higher grades relative to the average, which is inconsistent with its stated goals of liberal education.

Dartmouth faces a crucial decision now. It must choose whether or not to make the proposed changes to student transcripts -- a move that is meant to discourage further grade inflation here but has no effect on grades at other schools. Doing so would definitely place Dartmouth grads at a disadvantage, with no guaranteed effect on the overall state of higher education.

The bottom line: fighting grade inflation may be a worthy cause, but it can't be fought by one school alone. Dartmouth should not attempt to fight a war that is beyond its means, especially when that battle will undoubtedly hurt its students and damage the ideals of liberal education.

The grade inflation trend is disturbing and does present a real problem to American higher education, and, by extension, to the American workforce, since students will graduate and enter the workplace with this same mentality. But the problem is now so widespread, and Dartmouth has so little influence over other schools' policies, that Dartmouth by itself can do little to fight it without shooting itself in the foot by lowering its students' grades while everyone else raises theirs.

To get out of this competitive grade inflation game, colleges will have to find a way to coordinate their efforts and make their efforts known to the public, so as not to hurt their own students while inadvertently helping others. No single college can successfully fight the problem.