Inflated grades, inflated egos

The term “A for effort” isn’t what comes to most people’s minds when they think of college grading, but recent research confirms it is in fact the treatment many students expect.

In a study of 839 students aged 18 to 25 conducted by the University of California-Irvine,
40 percent of students said they deserved a B for completing assigned reading — and
one-third thought simply attending class merited a B.

The study, published in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence, fuels the already prevalent fears of certain nasty trends in higher education — grade inflation and academic entitlement. But these tendencies also speak to the broader movement of lowering educational expectations at the expense of both students’ capabilities and universities’ reputations. 

There is a place on the grading scale for students who meet the basic requirements of a course, like reading assigned material and showing up for lectures: the middle, otherwise known as the C range. Such modest effort is not the mark of a stellar student — it is expected of every student. Therefore, students who neglect such duties are likely to receive D’s and F’s — but that doesn’t mean satisfying them warrants B’s, let alone A’s.

Students aren’t the only ones to blame for the pervasive attitude of entitlement. Student expectations are a reflection of the nature of collegiate grading — students learn to recognize what constitutes A- and B-caliber work and how to judge their performance in the classroom. Professors are the ones handing out the grades, and they’re at least partially responsible for shaping student expectations.

If students are accustomed to professors who demand excellence in exchange for top grades, they won’t expect A’s and B’s for merely meeting basic course requirements. On the other hand, if students repeatedly receive high grades for “trying” (showing up prepared), it is unsurprising for them to feel entitled to high grades for doing the bare minimum.

In this way, professors collude with students to redefine excellence, awarding C-worthy performance with B grades and effectively lowering academic expectations across the board. In doing so, students and professors alike neglect an important distinction: Hard work is not necessarily quality work, and effort and reading do not equal comprehension or the ability to think critically.

Outside the classroom bubble, graduates will be expected to apply information and ideas to a profession. It is a poor representation of performance to be rewarded simply for trying, and it is students who ultimately suffer from such concessions.

Furthermore, churning out high GPAs by inflating grades makes a joke of universities and devalues the degrees attained there. Even Ivy League schools have received intense criticism for grade inflation — like when an internal review found that 90 percent of Harvard students graduate with honors and nearly 50 percent get A’s in their classes. While it’s unlikely that Harvard degrees will drastically drop in value — or that parents and legacy students paying exorbitant tuition costs would tolerate transcripts full of C’s — other, less prominent institutions rely on their reputations to attract top students and funding.

College rankings are influenced by how many undergrads get into prestigious graduate programs. Good grades are crucial to graduate school admission, making grade leniency a tempting prospect for academic institutions.

The current economic morass and skimpy job market for freshly graduated students increases anxiety over academic achievement, specifically GPAs. Combine these harsh circumstances with the widespread practice of students evaluating professors and — ta-da! — an environment of lenient “mercy” grading flourishes.

Of course, adversities within academe, including overtaxed adjuncts and TAs with little time to review and grade student work, exacerbate grade inflation.

Certain areas of study must operate on an effort-based system. For instance, creative writing relies largely on the students putting forth effort — coming to class, completing readings and producing a designated amount of writing — since there isn’t a hard-and-fast grading scale for the creative formulation of prose and poetry. One person’s crappy poem is another person’s treasure, so to speak. But this is certainly not the case for most fields.

“A for effort” is for kindergartners. The very phrase denotes the difference between an A earned legitimately and one given based on effort. At the college level, this faulty reward system discourages exemplary students who continually receive grades comparable to those of classmates who do the bare minimum and produce mediocre work.

Every student knows the “easy A” classes. In fact, they’re often welcome accompaniments to an otherwise rigorous schedule. But when all classes become throwaways and students expect extraordinary grades for ordinary work, it is a disservice to everyone — including the academy.

Renee Sessions is a senior majoring in English.