Earlier this month, when a University of Virginia Law School administrator accidentally sent an email filled with private student data, it confirmed what many in academia have long known and long bemoaned: grades are on the rise. Fifty percent of the students in UVA’s 2015 class had GPAs above 3.4, meaning that nearly everyone at the school, like every child in Lake Wobegon, was above average.
This is perhaps to be expected at an elite law school, where much of the competition occurs prior to admission and is weighted heavily toward students’ performance on the LSAT—a magic three-digit number that can be improved with the aid of expensive test prep courses of the sort that I used to teach for Kaplan. Extraordinarily high grades, such as those at UVA, serve as a counterbalance to the even more generous “no grades at all” policies in effect at law schools like Yale’s. (YLS stopped issuing grades back in the 1960s: When Ben Stein, the famous quiz show and Ferris Bueller actor, was named the valedictorian of his YLS class in 1970, he had to win an open election to earn that status.) And, given the price tag—$54,800 a year at UVA—it makes sense that prospective lawyers about to enter an uncertain job market would want to receive some additional grade-inflated bang for their tuition buck.
But elite law professors aren’t the only academics doling out high marks. In an essay that appeared in Guernica, Rachel Riederer described how adjuncts eager to have their teaching contracts renewed often give their students high grades in order to receive good performance evaluations. Slate’s Rebecca Schuman, who has taught on short-term contracts at various universities, admitted that she typically gave high grades in her humanities courses because she wanted to save herself from an endless barrage of outraged tweets, emails, and negative anonymous ratings.
Both Riederer and Schuman, however, seem to agree that if they were paid more and given lighter workloads, they would grade more aggressively and spend more time requiring their students to revise their work. Schuman, in fact, ultimately comes out in favor of a “real curve, where the average grade is really C” while acknowledging that parents paying top dollar for their students’ education would revolt at such a notion.
And you know what? I would revolt at such a notion, too. When I started out as a teaching assistant in graduate school, I watched as many of my peers engaged in one of the few pleasures available to them: ripping to shreds the work of the 80 or so undergraduates they supervised in their discussion sections. I frequently joined in, mocking the students’ ill-informed opinions and awkward turns of phrase. Together, we maintained a “wall of shame” designed to highlight these lowlights.
Now, as a third-year assistant professor, I regret having done any of that. I was never a hard grader, but I once derived a great deal of entertainment from the misfortunes and malapropisms of my students. Today, though, I’m allegedly part of the part of the “problem” of grade inflation, giving mostly As, Bs, and a smattering of Cs in my upper-level legal history classes—and I don’t see what all the fuss is about.
Based on our current in-state tuition rates, students pay approximately $50 per class to watch my lectures, and what they receive in return is my absolute best effort to capture and hold their attention. Although it saddens me that so much money is being exchanged for what is indisputably a public service, it’s in everyone’s best interest to maximize the value of these costly interactions. In other words, in an unfair system that requires students to bear the costs of their education, it makes no sense to impose harsh grading standards and other obstacles that prevent them from graduating. At a minimum, universities—which have had little success in reducing the cost of attendance—should do everything possible to encourage students to complete their degree programs.