“Grade Inflation”: Frisking Harvey Mansfield

In 2011, during the final weeks of a semester, a full professor at a research university in the United States was summoned to her department chair’s office. The chair said to her, “I notice that you gave three A+ in your general studies course this semester. That’s too many. I need you to lower two of them to straight A.”

During the same year, a graduate instructor in first-year composition submitted his grades to his advisor. An email followed, “Your grades are all A’s and B’s, with 40% of them A’s of some sort. Before you officially record the grades, lower the A+ to an A, and adjust the other grades so that you give fewer A grades and you give some C grades.

There is ample statistical ground for the statement that university grades are higher than they were in 1971, when I matriculated at University of Michigan, and in 1981, when I taught my first class as a teaching assistant at The University of Iowa. There is a phenomenon of people around and in the university that see this climb in overall grades over the last forty years as a problem. The question they’re asking is: “How can we lower grades to the level before grade inflation distorted them?”

The current push to lower grades can be traced back to Harvard Professor Harvey Mansfield’s 2001 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Grade Inflation: It’s Time to Face the Facts.” His article identifies the major themes echoed by those who believe grades are too high and should be systematically lowered. It’s worth looking closely at this article, because it initiated the current conversation, and because paying close attention to what it ignores will illuminate the conversation we could be having.

Notice the language. “Inflation,” for example, suggests that grades are a payment for schoolwork, much as my salary is payment for my teaching. (Curiously, there is no move among university administrators and faculty to return salaries to 1972’s norms.) When you begin with this analogy you skip the fundamental question, “What are grades for?”

Some people believe that grades exist to motivate students. Others, including Mansfield, believe that they exist to communicate to students what they’ve accomplished on an assignment, in a course or in their university careers. Others, again including Mansfield, believe that they exist to sort students into classes for rewards within the university—admission to selective majors, scholarships—and to sort them into classes for institutions outside, like graduate and professional schools, and future employers. Most of us believe in some combination of all three in fluid and shifting proportions.

Mansfield asserts that he knows grades have increased, and that he knows the increase started in the late sixties and early seventies. Mansfield, who cites no numbers, relies “on what I saw and heard at the time.” It turns out that he’s wrong about when grades began to rise, the nuances of the increases and where they happened. In the last decade, a few people have looked closely at the numbers and found that they are far more complicated than we might expect. There is a lively discussion of what the numbers mean among scholars of higher education, including statisticians. My reading of the statistics is best captured by Lester Hunt, editor of Grade Inflation, an excellent book of essays. He summarizes the numbers as follows: “The best data do not show a single direction or nation-wide trend (either up or down) throughout the three decades following 1972.”

Mansfield’s article is a response to his practice of generating two grades for his students—one for the registrar and another generally lower grade given to the student, which represented his true evaluation of that student’s work. “When grade inflation got started, in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, white professors, imbibing the spirit of affirmative action, stopped giving low or average grades to black students and, to justify or conceal it, stopped giving those grades to white students as well.”

Mansfield is clear that students have changed for the worse over time. In this he is more direct than the vast majority of those concerned by rising grades. Not only does he believe that unqualified minorities have been admitted to elite institutions, but that those students have been coddled by “the emphasis in American education on the notion of self-esteem.” However, his statements make it clear that we have to ask another fundamental question: “What are students like in 2012? How do they compare with students in 1960? 1970? Even the 80s, 90s and today?” I believe that most first-year students who are native speakers of English produce fewer spelling and grammatical errors in unrevised writing than they did in 1981. I have a colleague who vociferously disagrees. The point isn’t whether either of us is correct. The point is we don’t know.

Mansfield has a very clear notion about why most professors give higher grades than he does: “We are flattering our students in our eagerness to get their good opinion.” This claim is echoed in faculty meetings all over academe. He goes on to say that white professors give high grades to African American students out of a combination of liberal paternalism and fear. I know of no teachers at Iowa who will admit to giving high grades because they wish to be liked by their students. A few will admit being nervous about the effect that student evaluations have on their promotions and tenure. Most of us tend to say something like, “I give the grade the student earned.” The still unanswered question is, “Why do we give the grades we do?” If we were to start with that question, I believe we’d be far better off.

The full professor, in the office of her department chair, said, “No. I’m not going to change the grades.” And she walked out of the office bemused that even full professors get lectured on their too high grades by administrators who have seen not one line of her students’ work. The graduate instructor lowered his grades.

There is one answer to the question, “Why do we give the grades we do?” Some of us have more power than others.

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Patrick Dolan teaches Rhetoric at The University of Iowa. He has friends in academia all over English-speaking North America and beyond. The incidents depicted in this essay are composites of persons and institutions.