A University of Minnesota chemistry professor has thrust the U into a national debate about grade inflation and the rigor of college, pushing his colleagues to stop pretending that average students are excellent and start making clear to employers which students are earning their A's.
"I would like to state my own alarm and dismay at the degree to which grade compression ... has infected some of our colleges," said Christopher Cramer, chairman of the Faculty Consultative Committee. "I think we are at serious risk, through the abandonment of our own commitment of rigorous academic standards, of having outside standards imposed upon us."
National studies and surveys suggest that college students now get more A's than any other grade even though they spend less time studying.
Cramer's solution -- to tack onto every transcript the percentage of students that also got that grade -- has split the faculty and highlighted how tricky it can be to define, much less combat, grade inflation.
Some professors caution that forced standards could backfire and punish high-achieving students. Others also argue that doling out fewer A's and more B's and C's could result in harsher student evaluations, which factor into promotion and tenure decisions.
"I've taught the same course for almost 20 years," said Joseph Konstan, a professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering. "I've had times when 60 percent of the class earned an A, and I've had times when 20 percent of the class earned an A."
What might tamp down grade inflation, he asked, "without disadvantaging the students who happen to come in with a good bunch?"
At the U, grades vary greatly by department. Nearly 61 percent of students who took entry-level courses in the College of Education and Human Development nabbed A's in fall 2011. In the College of Science and Engineering, 29.5 percent did. The College of Biological Sciences awarded the fewest A's in those courses -- 24.6 percent.
A step, but a solution?
Cramer worries that inequality punishes the best students in the sciences when they compete for jobs against graduates from other colleges.
Under his proposal, a transcript would show the number of students in the class, plus the percentile range of students earning the same grade. So if a student earned an A -- but so did every other student in the class -- that range would be "A, 0 to 100." If, in a class of 20, she was the only student to earn a B, the highest grade given, the transcript would say, "B, 95 to 100."
"If it has the collateral damage of addressing grade inflation because professors are embarrassed that it's going to say 'A, 20 to 100,' hallelujah from my perspective," he said.
Karen-Sue Taussig considers herself a rigorous grader but admits to being even tougher when she started at the U in 2001. "Looking back," the anthropology professor said, "I really think there are a lot of subtle pressures to conform to a norm."
Taussig talked with her students about the rigor of her course, but still, at the end of the semester, students pushed back in course evaluations. "We live in a grade-inflated world," one told her. Several called her grading unfair.
"I was really struck by that," Taussig said.
She suspects that attitude is rooted in the growing cost of a degree and the declining public funding for universities. "They're paying for it, and they worked really hard, and they put in time, and therefore they think they should get a good grade," she said.
So the public, as much as the professors, must share expectations of what grades stand for, Taussig said.
Up to the faculty
Grading is "a quintessentially faculty matter," said Karen Hanson, the U's new provost, so administrators have little control. Some fields feature clear benchmarks, "and if people meet those benchmarks, that's that," Hanson said. "In other fields, the standards are more amorphous."
At a recent faculty meeting, Prof. Jennifer McComas stood up to "defend" the College of Education and Human Development, in which most students in 1000-level courses earn A's. Physical education makes up about a third of those 1000-level registrations.
"I'm thinking that you don't need to be an Olympic athlete to get an A in a P.E. course, she said. "That seems OK to me."
Subtract P.E., and the college's share of A's drops from 60.9 to 48.9 percent, said U spokesman Chuck Tombarge.
Like some individual departments, the entire Carlson School of Management has imposed a forced grading curve.
"We would always get faculty complaining that 'I would like to give tougher grades, but I can't," said Prof. George John, the Carlson School's associate dean of faculty and research. "This policy takes that burden off."
The rule set the "target median grade" for undergraduates at 3.0, or about a B, which was below the median grade at the time. Honors sections get more flexibility.
"It's about as stringent a policy as you get," John said.
It appears to have had some effect. In the early 2000s, Carlson's average G.P.A. in introductory courses was rising rapidly, from 2.9 in 1999 to 3.9 by 2007. But since then, the figure has dropped, to 3.1 in 2011.
Indiana University, Bloomington, tried "one of the most innovative and objective approaches to grade reporting." Starting in 1998, a student could request greater context on his transcript, including the spectrum of grades received.
Such transcripts are no longer available, largely because of a change in software systems. Students still can see where they stand online, but the fact that the system is most popular around registration time makes registrar Mark McConahay suspect that at least some students are scouting out the easiest professors.
At the U, a faculty subcommittee will study Cramer's proposal. "I'm not actually all that hopeful," he said. "It's a huge battleship to move."
During his first year in the College of Liberal Arts, Erich Beckert earned a B average in the fall, then a 2.4. His classes weren't "over-the-top difficult," he said, but "I didn't manage my time well enough." Plus, 20 credits this spring was "more than I could handle."
The semester "taught me where to focus my priorities," he said. "I expect to do a lot better next year."
Beckert worries that the proposed transcripts could hurt him with employers, who might be comparing his grades against those of a student at a "small, private college that could be way easier."
"I don't know what the solution is," he said. "But something should be done."
Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168