What incentivizes professors to grade honestly? Nothing.

Same Performance, Better Grades: Academic achievement hasn’t improved much, so why are college-goers getting higher GPAs than ever before?” doesn’t cite Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, though it should. Both the article and the book observe that grade inflation is real and doesn’t reflect increased student knowledge. But neither book nor article bring up an obvious question: What incentive does an individual professor have to grade honestly (or, as students might call it, “harshly”)?

When an individual professor grades students harshly, the students give low evaluation scores (which the article does, to its credit, note), but more importantly they can create a lot of extra work in the form of emails to be answered and, to a lesser extent, office hour visits generated. Much of htat work is not rewarding, intellectually or remuneratively, although office hours can be. Professors are rewarded primarily by producing research and in some schools to a lesser extent for getting high student evaluations, and grading honestly is counterproductive for either of those goals; it’s like a professional athlete honing his knitting skills.

Helicopter parenting may also contribute to student expectations around grades, and administrator expectations that students’s input will be valued in terms of who to hire, fire, and promote. I haven’t experienced helicopter parenting first-hand, but I have heard the stories, and I have heard about grad students and adjuncts going to meetings based on low grades; the message gets disseminated even if it isn’t stated explicitly.

I’ve gotten lots of unhappy emails and, more rarely, calls from students. The perhaps most interesting ones come from students who plagiarized papers but thought I should excuse the plagiarism. In middle or high school perhaps that would be appropriate, but not college, and their efforts take time and mental energy to deal with. If even the plagiarizers want a hearing and elaborate negotiations and second chances, imagine the students who just wrote weak papers!

There’s no check on giving high grades, especially in squishy humanities courses like the ones I teach. The article says “Ultimately, grade inflation has severe consequences,” but then lists extremely un-severe consequences, like difficulty “for employers to vet the caliber of an applicant” (do employers actually do this?) or misleading students, “who often use their grades as benchmarks to help diagnose their strengths and weaknesses.” Some students do that but many don’t. The “severe consequences” paragraph feels like it was invented by a student for a paper.

Finally, the much-ballyhooed shift from tenured faculty to adjuncts means that even small or unjustified complaints can mean the difference between a given adjunct getting a course or not getting a course, if the opportunity is down to two, or a small number, of potential instructors. I’ve not heard of any adjunct, grad student, or instructor getting static for giving overly high grades. Give low grades or run a demanding class, though, and it can and does happen. Many adjunct decide to buckle up for safety’s sake, instead of going wild by not wearing that seatbelt.

Colleges mostly know that the students will pay tuition (or rather, their parents and their loan originators will) if they are happy with the educational product, and professors know they are more likely to keep getting paid if they have fewer student complaints rather than more. Colleges have set up programs that are designed to graduate students with limited skills but real tuition money. Paying for the Party by Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton describes the consequences.

Want more serious grades? Provide the incentives to give them. Almost no one wants more serious grades.

See also “Subjectivity in writing and evaluating writing” and “The validity of grades.” Moreover, the NBER paper “Why Have College Completion Rates Increased? An Analysis of Rising Grades” finds that “grade inflation can explain much of the change in graduation rates. We show that GPA is a strong predictor of graduation rates and that GPAs have been rising since the 1990s. We also find that in national survey data and rich administrative data from 9 large public universities increases in college GPAs cannot be explained by student demographics, preparation, and school factors.” The paper seems consistent with anecdotal impressions.

8 responses

  1. I’ve had provable plagiarism once. All I had to do was document it and submit it to higher authorities, then it was out of my hands. One of the administrators didn’t like it because the cheater was her golden boy. She hates me but I still work there.

    Aside from that I grade pretty easily. It invites much less scrutiny and niggling. Why not? In the old days teaching was a calling. Now, the more I am told it’s a calling, the more I know it’s a job.


  2. The problem and the pressure to inflate is much worse at the middle and secondary school level. At college, grades don’t really matter for most people (except damaging the ego). But for middle and high school, low grades means that people get grounded, they don’t get into the high school they want, they don’t get to play football. I got tremendous amounts of pressure from parents and students about giving decent grades. I also received lots of pressure from the school itself about giving too many low grades. part of the problem may be related to the fact that I just started teaching and made some novice mistakes about giving grades, but for the most part it was practically impossible to give anyone a failing grade — though some probably deserved it. At that level both parents and students don’t particularly care about the subject itself but simply that someone makes the honor roll another semester or that they have met some numerical target. I actually agree that failing a student isn’t a good way to motivate, but I really resent the negative feedback I get from students and parents — in my district, parents and students receive phone alerts about low grades almost instantaneously, and they almost always email me to complain…..


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