Reduced Rigor and Grade Inflation Diminish the Quality and Credibility of Higher Education

By Zimmerman, Allen | NACTA Journal, December 2002 | Go to article overview

Reduced Rigor and Grade Inflation Diminish the Quality and Credibility of Higher Education


Zimmerman, Allen, NACTA Journal


Commentary/Opinion

Articles documenting reduced rigor and grade inflation at colleges across the country appear frequently in the media. Examples of reduced rigor include reports that a majority of college students spend 15 or fewer hours per week outside the classroom engaged in academic activities, passing rates are low for graduates required to take certain certification and licensing tests, and business personnel find that many college graduates do not have the expected and appropriate levels of knowledge and skills. Examples of grade inflation include reports that the average GPA of the student bodies at many colleges is in the B+ or higher range, some colleges have raised the requirements for the dean's list and graduation with honors because of the large percentage of students who have been qualifying for these distinctions, and many business personnel discount or ignore the GPA's of college graduates.

My colleagues in higher education are sources of numerous anecdotes that also reflect the reality that reduced rigor and grade inflation are becoming more and more pervasive on college campuses. Examples include the following: prospective enrollees who openly ask instructors if their courses will be easy in terms of rigor and grades, instructors who reduce rigor and inflate grades in order to improve student evaluations and/or to make teaching less work; students who make course and section selections based primarily on the instructors' reputations for being hard or easy; teachers who hand out a syllabus at the first class meeting and then dismiss the class; students who have successfully completed required prerequisite courses entering advanced courses without possessing the necessary basic knowledge and skills; teachers who habitually cancel classes without providing any make-up work; students who openly complain to current instructors that their courses are too demanding; teachers who do not give finals or give them during a class session as opposed to finals week; students who routinely request and expect changes in final grades; teachers who use class meetings as a college version of study hall; replacement of the term and practice of the "gentleman's C" (an obviously sexist phrase formerly used to describe the situation in which teachers would basically guarantee any student a grade no lower than a C) with the updated version, "pay your fee and get your B"; industry contract and distance education courses in which it is politically expedient that all students receive high grades; and instructors whose grading patterns are in essence "all A's, all the time."

Skilled and knowledgeable graduates should be the product of higher education and grades should be the major indicator of the amount and level of knowledge and skills that graduates possess. However, due to reduced rigor and grade inflation, it cannot be assumed that graduates have acquired the appropriate knowledge and skills and grades have become almost meaningless. The quality and credibility of higher education have certainly been diminished as a result. In addition, critics of higher education have been provided with an obvious example to use when they raise questions about the value, relevance, and costs of college education.

If it is agreed that reduced rigor and grade inflation are in fact major problems on our campuses, then what are the remedies that might help improve the current situation? I have listed some recommendations for consideration below.

First, it is time to recognize, honor, respect, and treat students as students and not as customers. The dictionary I consult defines students as scholars, learners, and those who study. It does not define students as customers (nor customers as students). How can anyone seriously advocate placing higher education at the mercy of students who act and expect to be treated as retail customers buying a degree? Yet the phrase "treat students as customers" has become all too common on college campuses. …

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