Paving the Road to Hell

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Who could be opposed to efforts to raise the graduation rate in Texas universities? Isn’t that like being against Mom and apple pie? There are some reasonable steps that can be taken to remove useless obstacles to graduation. For example, the Byzantine complexity of ‘flags’ introduced as new graduation requirements at UT-Austin eight years ago should be eliminated, and the statewide 42-hour core should be streamlined. Do all students really need a course in the performing arts?

However, we should think very carefully about the unintended consequences of putting pressure on universities to increase their graduation rates. Remember: there are no exit exams or other objective criteria for what counts as “earning” a bachelor’s degree. To graduate is simply to accumulate enough “credits” of the appropriate kind, which are dispensed at the discretion of teachers and departments. The easiest way for universities to increase the graduation rate is to lower academic standards.

This effect is no mere speculation. In fact, grades have inflated across the world of higher education over the last generation, from Harvard to the local community college. Over 40 percent of all grades awarded to college students last year were A’s, up from 7 percent in 1969. Essentially, all grades have been inflated by a full mark: what were D’s are now C’s, C’s are B’s, B’s and A’s are both A’s. It is not hard to see that if this trend continues, we will approach the point at which all students will earn A’s in all courses. Putting pressure on universities to increase graduation rates will only accelerate this trend.

What is the harm of grade inflation? Students are not working nearly as hard as they did a generation ago, as documented by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa in 2011’s Academically Adrift. The average student responds rationally to grade inflation by spending (according to student self-reporting) about 13 hours a week studying, less than half the time spent 20 years ago. This lack of academic rigor translates directly into more alcohol consumption and sexual promiscuity and to a degraded work ethic. In addition, Texas A&M statistician Valen E. Johnson has demonstrated (in his 2013 Grade Inflation) that students respond to grade inflation in non-STEM fields by fleeing STEM majors. Paradoxically, an increase in graduation rates could result in fewer science and engineering graduates! (Editor’s Note: This has not happened at UT. Demand for STEM fields is higher than UT can accommodate and growing.)

In fact, a collapse of academic standards is, in the long run, an existential threat to the entire higher education system. If the system begins to fail to hold students to rigorous and consistent standards, it will not be able to justify the massive investment required to sustain it.

The solution is to combine higher graduation rates with an objective and disinterested measurement of learning outcomes. We could, for example, require all graduating students to take the College Learning Assessment, GRE subject exams, or Oxbridge-style honors exams designed and graded by Texas scholars and scientists. State universities should be rewarded for higher graduation rates only if they simultaneously raise the average exit scores among their graduates. Such exit measures will reverse grade inflation, since the only way for universities to elicit more student effort would be to raise the standard for passing grades.

Illustration by Melissa Reese.

 

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