College Grade Inflation and Me
By Stephen Burleigh
I’m not too confident that I’m smarter than a fifth grader. Probably not. However, we now have irrefutable proof that I am smarter than my two adult sons. For the past two or three decades I’ve struggled with the uneasy feeling that they outpaced me intellectually. My youngest son is a professional musician who plays several instruments well and was born with the math gene; and his older brother is a true man of letters who chose the sordid life of professional playwright and screen writer over the ivy halls of academia. For many years the subject of who was smarter was a taboo in our family because I convinced them it was irrelevant as long as I could still kick their butts. Those days are long gone. Sure they whipped me in chess, even checkers, and the stack of serious fiction and non-fiction next to their beds towered over my wimpy pile of New Yorkers. I hated having to ask for help on the Sunday Times crossword from those ungrateful mini-Einsteins.
But now we know the truth. And I feel great. Researchers Stuart Rojstaczer and Christopher Healy have completed a study on grade inflation at over 200 four-year colleges and universities. Their study was published in the The Teachers College Record. (http://www.tcrecord.org/content.asp?contentid=16473) You can read an excellent summary of their findings by Catherine Rampell in the New York Times (http://economix.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/07/14/the-history-of-college-grade-inflation/?scp=2&sq=catherine%20rampell&st=cse)
The bottom line is that the percentage of A’s awarded in college has skyrocketed. Rampell reports, “43 percent of all letter grades given were A’s, an increase of 28 percentage points since 1960 and 12 percentage points since 1988. The distribution of B’s has stayed relatively constant; the growing share of A’s instead comes at the expense of a shrinking share of C’s, D’s and F’s. In fact, only about 10 percent of grades awarded are D’s and F’s.” Back in the day, back in my day, it was much harder to get an A. Not only did I have to walk ten miles through rain and snow to get to my classes every morning, I had to really work for that pat on the back. Not like those two slackers who ate all my ice cream and breezed to class on their skateboards.
Moreover, private colleges give out a much higher percentage of A’s and B’s than public universities. In fact at private colleges 86% of all grades given out are A’s and B’s, compared to 73% at publics today. And guess who went to a big public university and guess who went to fancy pants private colleges?
I graduated from a big public university at a time when the A was still the holy grail. And I got a bunch of ‘em. And those boys went to private colleges when anybody with a heartbeat could get an A in discreet math or semiotics. Thanks to Rojstaczer and Healy the jury is in and we now have confirmation that my generation of A getters is smarter than my kids’ generation of over achievers. ‘Nuff said. QED. Now if I could just remember where I left my glasses.