Monday, November 17, 2008

Academic Malpractice I: Decline of Standards

By Richard Vedder

Tomorrow, I will share with you some statistics confirming what many of us long suspected --college students on average do not work very hard, write few papers, read few books, etc. Today, I wish to suggest that one reason for this is that students simply are not expected to work --they are well rewarded with good grades no matter what they do, subject to some limits of course.

As of 2001-2, the average grade point average (GPA) at a wide cross-section of American universities was well above a "B" average, with the numbers rising over time. Using, a great new web site, my Whiz Kids (especially Matt Denhart and Jonathan Robe) checked out my own university, Ohio University, which is very typical, with an overall GPA of 3.05, and where only 12 percent of grades were below a "C," while 42 percent were "A" or "A-".

But what is more startling is the variation of grades by major or school within the university. At Ohio University, 99 percent of all grades examined by the website for the Department of Elementary Education were "A"s, and there were no Bs, Cs or Ds. Except for the infrequent student who simply stops coming to class but remains registered and therefore fails, everyone gets an A. Yet in the OU Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, the median grade is C+, and fully 25 percent get "D" or "F" grades. Yet I would bet money the average Chemistry student has higher grades in his/her non-chemistry/non-education courses than the average Elementary Ed student. One department has zero standards, the other has rigorous academic ones. Yet there are no adverse consequences, to my knowledge, of having no standards. I suspect, indeed, students in the Mickey Mouse departments as far as grades go are unfairly rewarded with more scholarship aid, etc., that is based on student performance.

To be sure, the OU education college is a bit of an extreme, but extremely high grades are common in education schools. For example, according to, "only" 70 percent of the education college students at the University of Kentucky get "A' grades, and the average GPA for all education students is a 3.70. No one, of course, got below a "B". There is little evidence that these education colleges teach ANYTHING that gives us better teachers, and those with alternative forms of certification (e.g., not through colleges of education), those in the Teach For America program, etc., do very well relative to those with education degrees. Yet the colleges of education continue to exist, often with virtually no standards, no incentives for students to work hard, to excel, or to distinguish themselves. And we continue to subsidize them when perhaps they should be taxed out of existence on the grounds of their negative spillover effects to society.

Question to legislators: why do you fund this behavior? If state legislators gave colleges an extra $100 subsidy per undergraduate student for each 0.1 percent point average GPAs fell below 3.0 for undergraduates, I have a feeling some of the grade inflation would end. Maybe we would start to restore standards and make young scholars realize that in academe, as in the real world, rewards are tied to performance.


capeman said...

Here is one time when I'm pretty much in agreement with the Doc. Yup, as he says, the chemistry department is usually pretty tough! And when the students get done with organic, it's on to physical chemistry, and I'm told that's no picnic. And so with some of the other departments. It varies somewhat from school to school which departments are tough. Generally, though, the science/engineering programs are on the high end of toughness.

capeman is proud to say he is probably the toughest grader (by a little bit) in a tough department. Not much grade inflation, and we watch each other. Sucking up to the students with high grades, to get good evaluations, is looked down upon. So far, nobody has paid a big price for this.

Cowboy said...

Ha-Haaa! I love it.

Probably the same case with Journalism school.

right-wing prof said...

I usually have a median grade of C+ with my Calc I, II,III students. What are these Ed types doing!?