Garett Jones  

An Unwritten Minimum Grade Law Exists

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The more I think about Boudreaux's Minimum Grade Law proposal, the more I realize it has already been quietly enacted. 

The names of the departments vary from university to university, but there's almost always a department or two willing to pass along a student with some C's and the occasional B.  At worst, a few general education classes stand as the only real barrier to graduation: once you're inside one of the Minimum Grade departments you're home free.  You just have to ask around to find out which departments enforce the MGL. 

As an outsider, it's hard for me to judge why the MGL is enforced in each particular case--perhaps a desire to get more students into an unpopular major, a random collection of soft-hearted professors, a desire to avoid perceived injustice--but as an outsider I can tell colleges behave "as if" the MGL is on the books.   

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COMMENTS (13 to date)
Matt R. writes:

Some faculty argue that students should learn for the sake of learning. They also argue that assigning grades teaches students to learn for the wrong reason (i.e. to get a grade and not for the sake of learning itself).

I have also talked to some faculty in departments such as marketing that say "The subject is not hard. What am I supposed to do?"

Throw in the general laziness of many faculty members and I think that you can explain a lot of grade inflation.

Krishnan writes:

There is no doubt that MGL is on the books - and it is really driven by revenue models. There are people who are looking at number of students, credit hours generated, external funding (tuition, any state funding) and so on and trying to figure out how to keep the overhead funded (i.e. expenses other than directly with classroom instruction or laboratories). What is ironic about this is that there are university campus residents who do not like the "business" approach - when in reality the people with their fingers on the money button are anything but "business like" - there are indeed no "business like" metrics that resemble "success" (except "number of students who graduate") - Very little effort is made to track the actual success of graduates and their impact on the economy - except in some cases when someone makes a huge donation - build a building with their name (and so on) - "Academically Adrift" by Arum and Roksa reminds us that very few students improve their critical thinking abilities after four years in colleges/universities - even as average GPA's are on the rise

I have posted this little tidbit somewhere - Apparently some local employer decided that they would up the GPA requirement for interviewing candidates for any job openings - When some local administrators heard about it, their response was "Well, if they demand 3.75 GPA then we will simply give more A's" - that is, they were not taken aback by the signal sent by the potential employer and instead decided that the best strategy was to artificially inflate grades ...

Krishnan writes:

Re: Matt R - the tragedy is that there are no real penalties for faculty who simply pass students who do not deserve to pass - If anything, there are penalties for those that fail students - so, faculty get the message _ "Just pass them along" - and "Hey, no one can pin point the problem with the student to my class anyway" - and so on ...

Bostonian writes:

African-American studies departments exist in part to meet unofficial racial quotas for faculty and in part to graduate black students who were admitted for diversity reasons. The same can be said for Chicano studies.

jseliger writes:

the more I realize it has already been quietly enacted.

Isn't that already well-known? At many universities, including the University of Arizona, the department is comm and/or sociology; I've mentioned that here and elsewhere because it's common knowledge.

If you talk to student, you'll certainly know: a lot of them can't hack engineering, so they end up in history. I've never heard one say, "history was too hard, and now I'm doing EE."

Krishnan writes:

Re: jseliger - I wish that the sciences/engineering remained rigorous - there are cracks forming there also - You hear often about how we are not graduating enough engineers/scientists - that China will be eating our lunch and so on and so on - And thus, pressure remains on Colleges of Science and Engineering to graduate as many as possible - and worse, as quickly as possible - There is indeed a race to the bottom as we look at competition for the students - there are attempts to reduce credit hour requirements, reduce pre-requisites and so on ... the dumbing down may be on the edges, but it has crossed the borders into science/engineering

Aaron Zierman writes:

I agree that we should look at incentives as being a large problem. If a student fails, it reflects poorly on both the teacher and the institution. Additionally, that student is far less likely to give future donations to the alumni fund. There are many different ways to see adverse effects of the incentives in the current MGL-ridden education system.

Further, I'd be very interested at exploring how the subsidization of education has contributed to the proliferation of the MGL. Could this be the primary driver?

Tom West writes:

Now I'm confused.

Are we supposed to be cheering this de-facto MGL because education is acting like a business and responding to the needs and desires of its customers, or angry because the government hasn't stepped in to interfere with this sound business practice?

Kitty_T writes:

I wonder if a high percentage of adjuncts, vs. permanent employed instructors, is an indicator.

My husband was known as something of a hard case (he actually had the gall to refuse to give multiple choice history finals), and multiple times had grades challenged by students (or their parents). Reasons ranged from "I deserved better than that" (fair enough, but for the contrary evidence) to "I need to keep my GPA up for nursing school" to "I'm paying your salary, how dare you give me a bad grade." My personal favorite: "I didn't know that guy I hired was going to copy a wikipedia page for my term paper, it's not fair to penalize me for what he did."

In one case, when the student escalated to the department head, he was flatly told "yes, this work is lousy, but here is the appeals process available to the student and I don't think it is worth your time to fight it, it certainly isn't worth mine, that's why we don't fail people."

After a while, most sane people will just give up.

I'd guess many adjuncts (full timers as well, I suppose, but the pressure is undoubtedly greater when you are an adjunct on semester-to-semester contract work) decide they aren't paid enough to deal with that kind of baloney, and/or they risk their job if students complain about grades to the administration - not that the instructor would be found wrong, but it is generally a career-limiting move to do anything that causes annoyance for your boss, particularly if your hold on your job is inherently tenuous.

Krishnan writes:

Re: Tom West: Higher Education is acting like a "Government protected" business that sells a poor product and yet keeps charging more - because they know they can - and "customers" have not quite woken up to that - But we do see that happening.

Re: Kitty_T - Sad, but true - far too often, the people who are not directly involved in the classroom simply do not want the hassle of dealing with their own "bosses" (i.e. people higher up in the salary chain) - and of course helicopter parents and sometimes angry alumni or relatives of such alumni. What is indeed really tragic is that those that can resist such insanities do not so so because a) they are just sick of it or b) the people in the chain make things difficult in many ways or c) the impact is so far away from the award of the grade itself that some are convinced it really does not matter or d) as you note, people just lose their sanity and give up

Tom West writes:

Higher Education is acting like a "Government protected" business that sells a poor product and yet keeps charging more

Government protected? Private universities have been, in my experience, at the forefront of grade inflation. And no surprise. They *have* to respond to the desires of their customers or risk destruction.

(Government loan guarantees do almost certainly make students more price-insensitive, though.)

Krishnan writes:

Re: Tom West - as you note, there is a problem with Government loan guarantees with private colleges/universities - But no, I was thinking of other issues/factors - There are many "private" colleges and universities that depend on tax payer largesse in many ways - overheads on grants/contracts, free or close to free on land/land usage (when it is not theirs), tax abatement/etc for their projects and so on and so on ... I am not sure how many "private" institutions are "private" - and what fraction of their operating and other expenses come from purely private/foundational sources. One can argue that the overheads on contracts/grants return value to the "funding agency" (i.e. tax payers) - and yes, many projects do indeed return favorably - We do not know how good the returns are and what they do to get those funds and so on ...

Tom West writes:

Krishnan, I'll agree there may be government distortions in behavior, but any distortions are likely to be in making the universities *less* responsive to customer desires and thus less likely to practice MGL.

It really seems like your comment is more "government = bad" rather than a rational link between government support and the specific behavior (MGL).

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