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The website MyEdu.com (formerly and appropriately called “Pick-a-Prof”) provides “services that focus on college decision making, such as degree planning & requirements, class schedules, courses, and professors. These services concentrate on helping students organize their academics,” according to the company’s Wikipedia listing.
The website also provides students with access to historic grade distributions for different professors and courses at an institution, at least for public universities that are legally obligated to provide grade data to MyEdu through public records requests. One likely outcome is that students will now use MyEdu to select classes taught by professors who are the easiest graders, which could further compromise what many have called the declining quality of a college degree.
It’s been widely documented that there has been consistent and widespread grade inflation at American colleges, law schools, and high schools for many decades, see CD posts here, here and here. Here’s one possible contributing factor to grade inflation at colleges:
1. It’s generally known that grade distributions differ between: a) full-time, tenured or tenure-track professors who generally give lower grades and fewer As, and b) part-time instructors who generally give higher grades and more As. See two examples in the above chart of grade distributions from required classes at a public university in Michigan, which I think are fairly representative of the grading differences between the two groups of professors. The part-time instructors are giving lots of As and have overall GPAs for the class around 3.5 (A-/B+), while the full-time professors give fewer As and have class GPAs below 3.0 in the B/B- range.
Here’s one possible scenario:
1. Over time, colleges and universities have created more and more full-time administrative positions relative to full-time faculty and relative to students.
2. To fund the increasing number of administrators, many universities have substituted cheaper part-time instructors for more expensive full-time professors.
3. Because part-time instructors are typically hired on short-term, renewable contracts and are subject to annual reviews based 100% on their teaching (because no research or service is usually expected from part-time instructors) as the basis for ongoing employment, they have an incentive to get the highest teaching evaluations possible to ensure renewal of their contracts. One easy way to get glowing evaluations from students is to be generous with easy As and Bs.
4. Therefore, much of the trend over time toward higher and higher grades and GPAs can be traced to the increased use of part-time instructors.
5. Students looking for the easiest grades and highest GPAs are then attracted to part-time instructors, and take fewer classes from full-time professors who tend to be more rigorous in their grading, but also more rigorous in their instruction.
Bottom Line: If these trends are accurate, it would mean that college students graduating today have higher GPAs than ever before, but also have degrees that include an increasing share of courses taught by part-time instructors. Responding appropriately to the incentives they face, many (certainly not all) part-time instructors may offer less rigorous instruction than full-time tenured professors, and contribute indirectly to degrees that are less rigorous than in the past.
And if students now have detailed and accurate grade distributions for professors, to supplement the less scientific word-of-mouth information that has always been available, and if students systematically pick professors who are the easiest graders, and often the least rigorous instructors, the value of a college degree could further deteriorate as grade inflation continue to rise.
As George Mason economist Walter Williams wrote in an article titled “Academic Fraud,” “If grade inflation continues, a college bachelor’s degree will have just as much credibility as a high school diploma. To approach truth in grading, parents and employers should lower the average student’s grade by one letter, and interpret a C grade as an F.”
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