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. None of that work is rewarding but it can be distracting. Professors are rewarded primarily by producing research and in some schools to a lesser extent for getting high student evaluations. Grading honestly is counterproductive for either of those goals.

In addition, 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 away from more important activities. If even the plagiarizers want a hearing and elaborate negotiations and second chances, imagine the students who just wrote weak papers!

Finally, there is 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.” I haven’t noticed students doing that. The “severe consequences” paragraph feels like it was invented by a student for a paper.

Colleges mostly know this, and they’ve 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.

See also “Subjectivity in writing and evaluating writing” and “The validity of grades.”

Student choice, employment skills, and grade inflation

Edward Tenner’s Atlantic post asks, “Should We Blame the Colleges for High Unemployment?” and mostly doesn’t answer the question, instead focusing on employer hiring behavior. But I’m interested in the title question and would note that the original story says, “Fundamentally, students aren’t learning [in college] what they need to compete for the jobs that do exist.”

That may be true. But colleges and universities, whatever their rhetoric, aren’t bastions of pure idealistic knowledge; they’re also businesses, and they respond to customer demand. In other words, student demand. Students choose their own major, and it isn’t exactly news that engineers, computer scientists, mathematicians, and the like tend to make much more money than other majors, or that people in those disciplines are much more likely to find jobs. Students, however, by and large don’t choose them: they choose business, communications (“comm” for the university set), and sociology—all majors that, in most forms in most places, aren’t terribly demanding. I’ve yet to hear an electrical engineering major say that comm was just too hard, so she switched to engineering instead. As Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa show in Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, those majors aren’t, on average, very hard either, and they don’t impart much improvement in verbal or math skills. So what gives?

The easiest answer seems like the most right one: students aren’t going to universities primarily to get job skills. They’re going for other reasons: signaling; credentialing; a four-year party; to have fun; choose your reason here. And universities, eager for tuition dollars, will cater to those students—and to students who demand intellectual rigor. The former get business degrees and comm, while the latter get the harder parts of the humanities (like philosophy), the social sciences (like econ), or the hard sciences. It’s much easier to bash universities, with the implication of elaborately educated dons letting their product being watered down or failing, than it is to realize that universities are reacting to incentives, just as it’s much easier to bash weak politicians than it is to acknowledge that politicians give voters what they want—and voters want higher services and lower taxes, without wanting to pay for them. Then people paying attention to universities or politics notice, write articles and posts pointing out the contradiction, but fail to realize the contradiction exists.

You may also notice that most people don’t appear to choose schools based on academics. They choose schools based on proximity, or because their sports teams are popular. Indeed, another Atlantic blogger points out that “Teenagers [. . .] are apt to assemble lists of favored colleges through highly non-scientific methods involving innuendo, the results of televised football games, and what their friend’s older brother’s girlfriend said that one time at the mall.” Murray Sperber especially emphasizes sports in his book Beer and Circus: How Big-Time Sports Is Crippling Undergraduate Education.

By the way, this does bother me at least somewhat, and I’d like to imagine that universities are going to nobly hold the line against grade and credential inflation, against the desires of the people attending them. But I can also recognize the gap between my ideal world and the real world. I’m especially cognizant of the issue because student demand for English literature courses has held constant for decades, as Louis Menand says in The Marketplace of Ideas:

In 1970–71, English departments awarded 64,342 bachelor’s degrees; that represented 7.6 percent of all bachelor’s degrees, including those awarded in non-liberal arts fields, such as business. The only liberal arts category that awarded more degrees than English was history and social science, a category that combines several disciplines. Thirty years later, in 2000–01, the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded in all fields was 50 percent higher than in 1970–71, but the number of degrees in English was down both in absolute numbers—from 64,342 to 51,419—and as a percentage of all bachelor’s degrees, from 7.6 percent to around 4 percent.

Damn. Students, for whatever reason, don’t want English degrees as much as they once did. As a person engaged in English Literature grad school, this might make me unhappy, and I might argue for the importance of English lit. Still, I can’t deny that more people apparently want business degrees than English degrees, even if Academically Adrift demonstrates that humanities degrees actually impart critical thinking and other kinds of skills. I could blame “colleges” for this, as Tenner does; or I could acknowledge that colleges are reflecting demand, and the real issue isn’t with colleges—it’s with the students themselves.

Grade Inflation? What Grade Inflation?

A friend sent me “Should I feel guilty for failing my students? As an adjunct English professor, I know I shouldn’t inflate grades — but I feel like I’m ruining people’s lives,” an excerpt from “In the Basement of the Ivory Tower,” which began life as a frighteningly accurate Atlantic article.

I agree with a lot of the “Should I feel guilty for failing my students” excerpt, but I don’t think this is correct: “First of all, twenty-first-century American culture makes it more difficult to fail people.” The biggest reason it’s hard for professors to fail students, as economists like to remind us, involves incentives.

I’m a grad student in English lit, and when I go to the job market in the near future, I’m highly unlikely to be judged at all on my grade distribution; as far as I know, the University of Arizona doesn’t even send that information out. I may or may not be seriously judged on my teaching evaluations, depending on the kind of university I try to go to. I probably won’t, or won’t very much, but the easiest way to improve evals is to give higher grades (see “Judgment Day” for one popular explanation). Perhaps not surprisingly, students give better evals to profs who get higher grades. So professors, in the absence of any institutional or professional incentives not to give higher grades, do—at least on average, even if any single prof denies doing so (I have yet to hear anyone in a public forum announce, “I inflate grades.” I do not inflate grades).

To recap: we might be looked at poorly for having bad teaching evals, which are linked to student grades, and there’s no pressure on student grades. The big thing I will be judged on is academic publishing. The more I do that, the better off I am professionally. When you give students bad grades, not only are they likely to take it out on evals, but they’re more likely to complain to your teaching advisor, show up in office hours to fight about grades, be unhappy in class, and generally take more of time, which you can’t spend writing the academic articles that will get you a job and tenure.

Combined, these two forces encourage you to give higher grades and maximize academic publishing. This force is probably strongest in softer subjects, like the humanities, business, comm, and the like (students want to argue papers all day long) and weakest in math and the sciences (if you didn’t get the right answer, your instructor will demonstrate why you’re objectively wrong). Fields like nursing probably don’t see a huge amount of grade inflation because students who don’t understand the material will kill someone if they don’t, which is a big problem for lots of people. Same in engineering—if your bridge collapses, you can’t complain that there is no such thing as a “good” bridge, or that bridge design is so “subjective.”

All this stuff might contribute to how little students are actually learning, as discussed extensively in Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses. The book shows that most college students, through most measures, don’t acquire much real knowledge over the course of their four or more years in school. Part of Academically Adrift details the evidence used to reach this conclusion, the other big part describes how this might have happened and be happening, and the last (weakest) part discusses solutions.

How could one solve this incentive problem? Probably by plotting eval scores against grades. If you’re giving an average GPA of 3.0 and getting a 4.0 on your eval, and Suzie down the hall is giving an average GPA of 2.9 and getting a 4.3 on her evals, then Suzie is probably doing better. I don’t know why colleges aren’t moving toward systems like this, aside from inertia and the complete lack of incentive to do so. Which, I guess, means that I do know why. This wouldn’t be a perfect solution, but it would at least be a step in the right direction. A few schools are apparently doing something about the issue.

Professors don’t want to champion better evals, however, because it distracts them from the research for which they’re rewarded. Administrators don’t want to because they want tuition and grant money, not rocking the boat. High school seniors have not shown a great swell of interest in attending schools with rigorous professor evaluations; they have shown a great swell of interest in beer and circus, however, so that’s what they mostly get. Grad students want to claw their way up the academic ladder and/or finish their damn dissertations. Parents want their offspring to pass. Employers are too diffuse and don’t get much of a say. So where does the coalition for improvement come from? Some individuals, but we’ll see if they get very far.

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