Confessions of a Grade-Inflating Professor

At colleges across America, high marks are getting easier and easier to earn—and that might not be a bad thing. 

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.

During my last year as an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina, I read Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind and Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism and came away thinking that ours was a benighted and dissolute age. O tempora! O mores! What kind of academic world was this, that had so little love for the Great Books and so much tolerance of pop music and reality television? And why had I spent so such of my own time writing about such frivolous things? Surely the humanities needed to be saved from a future of serious papers about professional wrestling and classroom discussions about the gender politics of Internet pornography! And all these As I had gotten from kind-hearted academics who had come of age during the 1960s—how could I possibly live with myself?

To my college-age self I say: I can live with myself just fine, thank you very much. The grades I received throughout my academic career were inflated—stratospherically so in the case of a Ph.D. program where A was the only possible grade—but this neither helped nor hurt my self-esteem. What did help me was the fact that those mentors, most of them notorious grade inflators who cared little to nothing about the letters on my transcript, treated me as an equal and steered me toward interesting projects and ideas that captured my imagination.

From them, I learned something very important: The humanities, while of paramount importance, aren’t rocket science. A test filled with chemistry problems that all have clear yes-or-no answers might be amenable to a curve; an essay question about the development of judicial review in the United States most assuredly is not. I now approach each class I teach with a firm personal conviction that every person is equally capable of giving attention to the subject at hand (a belief, mind you, not a confirmed and testable fact). Obviously, not all of my students will prove equal at discussing Foucault or Deleuze, but I do believe that all of them, as human beings endowed with reason and the capacity to analyze information, stand an equal chance of earning an A in my course.

In a perfect world, higher education would be free and open to everyone. For a host of reasons, ours is not such a world—and appalling recent trends suggest it never will be. Many have argued that this pay-to-play model of higher education has caused American universities to emphasize ego-boosting customer service to the detriment of traditional academic values. But my students’ tuition dollars aren’t buying my customer service—they’re buying my public service, and I’ll make sure they still have every opportunity to succeed in this badly flawed environment.