Grade inflation at university harms everyone

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Generic students, university exams, lecture.
Students sitting an exam.
students afr sydney saved in news Pic by Rob Young. Generic students, university exams, lecture. Students sitting an exam.

The emails from my students will start immediately after grades are posted. I try to nudge these students to accept the grade they were given, but all too often I will need to sit with them and go sentence by sentence through the final paper explaining every decision I made.

Most of my post-secondary education took place in Australia, where even the smartest person needs to work to earn an A. But as an adjunct lecturer in New York City, I find that requiring superior mastery of the subject before giving an A puts me at odds with my students. Too many want an A, irrespective of the quality of their work. ("I can't accept anything less than an A" or "I need an A so that I can ..."). Why do American university students feel entitled to As?

Evaluating student work is very serious. The stakes are high. Grades affect each student's future. Getting this part of my job right matters.

According to former Duke University professor Stuart Rojstaczer, who researches college grades, A has been the most common grade at Harvard University for 20 years, and has been the most common grade nationwide since 1998. He found that between 1983 and 2013, grade point averages rose from a national average of 2.8 to 3.1, with the largest rise in private schools (2.9 to 3.4).

I teach first-year writing, introduction to literature, speech communication and research in the disciplines at the City University of New York. In Australia, a grade of 100 is almost unheard of. How does one award 100 for subjects like mine? There is neither a right nor a complete answer to any questions in my discipline.

In the late 1990s, Mona Miller and Phil Carls wrote guidelines for Colorado State University and University of Iowa students who were planning a study trip to Australia. The guidelines read: "There is no grade inflation in Australia ... the majority of Australian students simply receive passing grades ... perfectly OK."

Miller, now regional director for the South Pacific, Asia and the Middle East at Academic Programs International, still works with three Australian university affiliates. She said by email: "Based on observation not data ... I believe that the initial observations still hold true."

College has always been, and always will be, a sorting process and a meal ticket, as well as a badge of higher knowledge. In Australia, having a degree from a certain university tells prospective employers what they need to know. When I lived there, grades weren't considered outside of higher education. In the United States, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education among others, hiring decisions also take into account internships and outside activities. The highest grade point averages don't guarantee recruitment, so why inflate grades?

It is often argued that students at elite private schools like Harvard needed to be A students to get in, so it's only natural they continue to get As. But there is no guarantee that students will maintain their work ethic through college. In fact, some would argue they shouldn't, believing that college is a place for young people to experiment, kick up their heels and have fun.

Perhaps the strongest argument for grade inflation at US private universities is that with costs running, in some instances, above $50,000 a year, students and their families pay for an A. But postgraduate study and some jobs require superior mastery of the subject. If everyone gets an A, how do we recognise those who know their stuff?

To be competitive in the 21st century, we need the best people in the right jobs. Australia provides the kind of education that prepares students for this uncertain future. Perhaps America should take a leaf out of our book.

Or perhaps not. Perhaps I should fall in line here, and give out As. At least that would put a stop to all those emails.

Jillian Abbott is an adjunct lecturer at York College in The City University of New York. Twitter: @Jannabbott

This story Grade inflation at university harms everyone first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.