College Admissions

Make School Hard Again

Grade inflation needs to stop.

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On March 12, news of a massive admission scandal broke in the world of higher education. At least 50 people, including several celebrities, stand accused of paying a consultant named William Rick Singer to get their children into particular colleges by any means necessary. His alleged tactics included falsifying standardized test results and bribing coaches to fraudulently nominate students for athletic scholarships, sometimes in sports they didn't even play in high school.

The revelations have understandably provoked much wailing about the corruption of the university admissions process. But much less notice has been paid to another sea change that enabled this scandal to occur: It is still very hard to get into elite schools, but it's not at all difficult to graduate.

In a different era, obtaining a diploma from an Ivy League school required hard work and real educational attainment for almost any major. The kinds of students admitted through money or connections would often struggle to make it through—hence the so-called "gentleman's C." But the vast majority of those who completed a degree could take pride in their accomplishments and rest easy knowing they were well-prepared to succeed in life.

Not so anymore. Since the late 1960s, universities have increasingly suffered from grade inflation and an emphasis on ensuring that all admitted students graduate. At the same time, schools have become more liberal about accepting applicants based on unorthodox qualifications, from athletic ability to nonacademic accomplishments, disadvantageous backgrounds, and demonstrated social "awareness."

If these changes were simply used to admit a wider range of individuals who in the past would likely have been overlooked but who, given the opportunity, were capable of meeting the strict existing standards, this would be a laudable development. But that is not what has happened.

The old academic criteria, imperfect as they were, were in fact doing a reasonable job of selecting individuals able and willing to handle the rigors of traditional college. The blunt fact is that the majority of people who scored below a 1200 on the verbal and math sections of the SAT would have found it difficult or impossible to handle a curriculum like that required to earn a state-school engineering degree or comparable certification. Today, thanks to grade inflation, such students can and do pass through top schools with top honors, especially in the liberal arts.

There are many ways to achieve success and fulfillment that do not involve attending an elite college. Instead of encouraging people to pursue options well-matched to their abilities, however, we tell young people that their self-worth hinges entirely on the brand name on their college diploma. This creates a perverse incentive to do whatever it takes to get into their dream school, to amass tens of thousands of dollars in student loans, and to select a major based not on the professional opportunities it will open to them but on the ease of the program's academic requirements. Small wonder we now have a generation drowning in debt and struggling to meet the traditional benchmarks of adulthood.

Who Is Losing?

Though grades have always been lower in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) subjects than in the arts and humanities, graduating from a good school with a degree in any major did not use to be a cakewalk. Average GPAs have risen by a full point or more since the late 1960s. Gradeinflation.com* shows that at Michigan State, for example, the percentage of As doubled to about 30 percent of all grades from 1963 to 1973 and then rose again by about 50 percent from 1983 to 2013. This is consistent with other research on the widespread change in grading standards nationwide.

As the conversation around higher ed has increasingly come to focus on inclusivity and maximizing graduation rates, elite universities have reacted by eliminating their core curricula, dumbing down the requirements that remain, or providing so many degree options that a student of average ability at an average school could be placed in most top liberal arts colleges and still survive (albeit, perhaps, in the lowest quartile of his class).

A rule of thumb is, the more math, the harder to graduate. Today, a student who gets into an Ivy intending to major in computer science and finds himself in over his head can easily migrate to an easier subject and still walk away with a prestigious diploma come graduation. This is damaging not only to the quality of universities but to poorer students of genuine ability.

Imagine that a striver from a lower-class background, by dint of hard work, manages to attain an A at a college that, as in times past, demands high standards of all its students. In contrast, the rich ne'er-do-well, buoyed by a family trust fund and prone to overindulging on the weekend, either does not graduate from said college or ends her tenure with a C. The wealthy kid will still have all the pull and privilege that family connections can bring, but the smart, diligent student will have her A to show for her efforts.

Now consider the modern alternative: The poorer student, having gotten an A in a difficult major, finds herself competing with a rich classmate who mostly spent her four years partying. Yet aided by tutors and a judicious selection of easy subjects, the wealthy kid graduates from the same prestigious college with what seems to be an equally distinguished A. Who is losing in this new system?

Standardized tests are frequently derided for advantaging the rich. But in fact, they are often the primary way for those without money and connections to make their case. Just imagine if the SAT were so easy that everyone got the same score. Who would more likely win admission to a top school: the wealthy world-traveler with prestigious extracurriculars (and a parent willing to donate a tidy sum to the university's endowment), or the scrappy straight-A student who spends his summers working for minimum wage to help cover his tuition?

Punishing Rigor

Because college rankings penalize schools with low graduation rates, the current system actually harms the schools that dare to buck the trend.

My own alma mater, the California Institute of Technology, is notorious for not having legacy admissions and for being intensely focused on making sure that all its admits are academically qualified. Why? Because someone without the capability to do well in STEM subjects will not make it through Caltech's rigorous core curriculum. All students—even those in economics or history—must pass basic courses in calculus, physics, chemistry, and biology that are shared with students in those majors.

Thirty or 40 years ago, as much as a third of a Caltech entering class of approximately 230 would not finish. Today—since low graduation rates can hurt a school's reputation—dropouts are much rarer. But it is still difficult to complete a degree, especially if you do not have the diligence and skills that tend to be associated with strong science backgrounds and high test scores.

Ironically, these tough standards make rigorous schools less attractive to many good students. I have spoken to admits who chose an elite university because they knew that there, they were unlikely to earn less than a B, while at Caltech they would have to work hard just to graduate.

There have been years in which every single student admitted by Caltech scored an 800 on the Math 2 achievement exam. The combined SAT verbal and math result for the lowest-scoring student is often comparable to that of the average score at an elite school. Just try to find information about the lowest-scoring students at most top institutions: Those colleges don't report the full range of admitted test scores, even anonymously. They want to hide the fact that the bottom 10 percent or so of their classes are substantially less academically qualified than their median admits.

The Envy of the World

This nonsense should cease. Schools are not here to certify the life achievements of the 1 percent, nor does it disparage the value of either sports or more vocationally oriented jobs that universities are not meant to serve those who excel at those activities. They are places for learning and scholarship.

Those who are less academically qualified should not, because of some essay they wrote for a specialized pool of admissions officers, buoyed by a donation from their parents, be granted admission to a top school over a middle- or lower-class child so naive as to think that strong test scores and grades would be enough. Outside the United States, such a system would be rightly filed under corruption and malfeasance—with or without the addition of phony claims to athletic prowess.

Many will chide me and say that the U.S. system of higher education is the envy of the world. As an academic, I answer that this is only half-right. The U.S. higher education system is admired for its faculty research and the products of its graduate programs, not for its level of basic teaching—and the former areas, lucky for all of us, remain overwhelmingly meritocratic. Students at the doctoral level are selected with minimal regard for the "holistic" considerations so prevalent at the undergraduate level. They're generally drawn from around the world without attempts to represent different groups equally. If you doubt this, see how far your lacrosse championship or volunteer experience will go in compensating for low GRE math scores when applying to a Ph.D. program in economics or physics at a top-20 university.

The corrupt undergraduate admissions process at most schools today can flourish because the higher branches of the American academic tree are so good. But the lower branches are rotten with grade inflation and social promotion. The move away from an emphasis on genuine academic achievement and meritocratic promotion has done a disservice to the least well-off while offering more opportunities for the rich and connected to buy the trappings of success for their offspring.

*CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misstated the name of the website.

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99 responses to “Make School Hard Again

  1. […] The comical panicky motion of the curling sweepers is reminiscent of the lunge of a parent trying to grab an iPad from a kid who’s had too much “screen time” or to take a “problematic” young adult novel from an impressionable teen. It is perhaps best embodied by rich people engaging in elaborate frauds to get their children into prestigious colleges. […]

  2. About 30% of freshman at Carnegie Mellon, at least when I was there, would not wind up graduating from the school, and there was a running enmity for Stanford that, as asserted by a professor who had graduated from there, had not given an undergrad a “C” in 20 years. Grading was tough, whether STEM or otherwise, and the number of nauseatingly brilliant kids warped curves. I had a 4.0 / 33 ACT out of high school and was a very average student there.

  3. Kids are learning education basics in their undergrad degrees that they should have learned in High School.

    What is shocking is that nobody bothered to explain to young people that they need to know how to use laptops and desktops with business type applications to be successful in the business world. The kids are led to believe that their skills on cell phones translates perfectly and they dont.

    1. When I was in my very first undergrad Biology course we had to write essays because the English skills at that level were so bad that they started making every professor take responsibility for it. It starts at the high school level. Stop teaching every child they need to get into college, and stop dumbing down the college acceptance standards. Not every person needs a college degree and conversely, college should be so intellectually challenging that most students CAN’T handle it.

  4. From HuffPo, here’s a tragic illustration of how far the GOP has fallen.

    John McCain Recited Names Of Dictators During Trump Inaugural, Senator Says

    “Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a candidate for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, sat next to McCain during Trump’s January 2017 speech.”

    If I had been old enough to vote in 2008, I would have voted for Obama over McCain. I would not, however, have called McCain racist, or compared him to Hitler. Because he was one of the last decent, patriotic Republicans — before most of the party embraced white nationalism and sold out to Russia.

    #LibertariansForMcCain
    #(ExceptWhenHeRanAgainstObama)
    #LibertariansForABetterGOP
    #PutTheNeoconsBackInCharge

    1. “Klobuchar, speaking to a crowd of more than 200 at Jasper’s Winery…”

      That press release just writes itself. She is around 1.7% in the polling so far. Looking good.

      1. 1.7%? That’s insane – I would have guessed that only Bernie Sanders had a 1.7% BAC. The rest of them, maybe down around a .35, a .45 at most.

    2. McCain by all accounts that I have read was a jerk in personal life.

      His nickname was McNasty in high school. Here is a little anecdote

      “In his 1992 Senate bid, McCain was joined on the campaign trail by his wife, Cindy, as well as campaign aide Doug Cole and consultant Wes Gullett. At one point, Cindy playfully twirled McCain’s hair and said, “You’re getting a little thin up there.” McCain’s face reddened, and he responded, “At least I don’t plaster on the makeup like a trollop, you cunt.””

      But this one made me laugh: “…sold out to Russia”. Someone has been watching too much CNN or MSNBC. Bitter clingers is an apt descriptor.

      1. What is the printed source of the McCain quote and what person alleged that he said that?

  5. “At the same time, schools have become more liberal about accepting applicants based on unorthodox qualifications, from athletic ability to nonacademic accomplishments, disadvantageous backgrounds, and demonstrated social ‘awareness.’

    That’s a good thing in my book. I think it’s terrific that common sense gun safety advocate David Hogg got into Harvard with a reported 1270 SAT score.

    1. I always thought football and basketball players got in with lower academic standards because they brought cash and glory to the university, and typically came from disadvantage backgrounds. But this year’s admissions scandal has taught us that sailing and crew and lacrosse “athletes” are getting admitted with lower academic standards because their parents were rich enough to send them to private schools that had those sports. And most athletic scholarships go to students from families with enough money to sponsor them on costly travel teams.

      1. Anybody who is surprised that the children of the wealthy get into prestigious schools for which they would not otherwise qualify is probably astonished at the news that water is wet. My Father (son of a poor Methodist Minister) got scholarship offers from Princeton and Harvard, and chose Princeton because even them, back in the 1940’s, Harvard Undergraduate was known as a day care for the idiot children of the rich.

      2. There are plenty of sports scholarships that do help regular families, though. My little sister got into an Ivy League school with a lot of funding for a sport. She had the grades and the SAT scores to back it up, but we don’t come from money. The scholarship helped her, but she ended up transferring out anyway because the other students were such spoiled snots that she had nothing in common with them and didn’t think her college name would give her enough of an advantage in live to justify her tolerating four years of misery.

        1. I am calling BS. There are no Ivy schools that offer sports scholarships. The sport may have helped get her in, and then your family economic situation may have got her a need based scholarship, but that is all you can get from the Ivy League: see http://college-athletic-scholarship.com/do-ivy-league-schools-offer-athletic-scholarships.

          Furthermore, as much as I am a critic of Ivy League pretensions, the fact is that those pretensions are rarely found among the student body. The only exception can possibly think of is Stanford, a match making game for upper and upper-middle class, which is technically not in the Ivy League (and could also offer sports scholarships). The vast majority of students are pretty humble, a by-product of all the “diversity” based admissions decisions. Athletes are a pretty insular group, and, not to single out softball, but I was told by a woman who attended Harvard a couple decades ago and played softball BRIEFLY that there was a ton of anti-hetrosexual pressure perpetrated by the many homosexual women on the team. But, since the “scholarships” are never tied to being on the team, she just stopped playing softball.

          The pretensions of the Ivy’s is with professors, the administration, and, to some degree, the alumni organizations.

    2. “I think it’s terrific that common sense gun safety advocate David Hogg got into Harvard with a reported 1270 SAT score.”

      This surprises me. I would have expected you to be rooting for the Hogg classmate (and clinger-in-training) recently revealed to be a fledgling bigot.

      1. You must have me confused with someone else, Art. Since Michael Hihn has apparently been banned, I’m probably this comment section’s most vocal proponent of sensible, common sense gun laws. David Hogg is a personal hero of mine.

        #BanAssaultWeapons
        #UnbanMichaelHihn

        PS — I also support Ivy League schools encouraging black and brown students to apply if they get 1100 on the PSAT.

      2. Hey, Rev? Why do you even come here?

      3. What surprises most people is that you don’t get the ever living shit beaten out of you ever single day you poison the earth with your existence, you inbred maladjusted retard.

        1. Whereas you’re just poisoning the discourse here in this Comments section.

      4. Wait, which one of you two is the parody again? I forgot.

  6. Their purpose is no longer to prepare students for the job market, it is to brainwash as many impressionable young people as possible. Different goals require different approaches.

    1. It is exactly the opposite, actually.

      In the “olden days”, the purpose of college was to get a liberal (small-l) education. Learn the classics, study Latin, that sort of stuff. Regardless of whether it was relevant in the job market.

      Now college is looked much more as a credentialing factory. The classics have been ditched in favor of getting people job-ready as quickly as possible.

      1. Sure, bud, because someone with a degree in womyns studies is ready for the job market.

      2. Back in the olden older days it was that… Then in the “golden era” of the mid 20th century it was rigorous, but mostly people thought of college as a place to study things that were useful for careers. Now it has turned into a feel good exercise for people who shouldn’t even be there, AND indoctrination. A little bit of all those things have always been there, but different once have taken precedence at different times.

  7. An 800 math II SAT? Pffffh. I got one of those, and I know I answered one of the questions wrong. I asked my math teacher afterwards, he showed me the correct answer. I skipped a lot of questions; that one I answered wrong.

    Counselor was all excited. I told him I knew I answered at least one question wrong. He said they checked it again, I got 800.

    Pfffh. SAT scores aren’t as hot as they think they are.

    1. SAT scores don’t work the way you think.

      Yes, an 800 is in theory a “perfect” score. But the SATs always include several categories of questions. One of those categories each year is “test” questions which are being evaluated for continuity, possible bias, accuracy, appropriate level of difficulty, etc. Your answers on those “test” questions are not considered in your personal score. You could get every one of those test questions wrong and still score an 800.

    2. the SAT added a hundred points to people’s scores about 20 years ago, because students weren’t doing as well as they did before. So a 1600 now is like a 1500 when I took it.

      1. My understanding is that an 800 from before the late 80s became a 1000.They changed the mean score. The difference narrows as the score rises so a 1200 would be a 1300, a 1450 maybe 1500 but a 1600 is still a 1600. It’s hard to say exactly. ETS is always tweaking that shit. I was a NMSF because in the late 70s they began doubling the verbal and adding it to the math on the PSAT to include more women but then they did away with the antonyms a year or so later because they supposedly measured verbal intelligence rather than “college aptitude”.

        I never understood what they did with the logic section because it wasn’t used in the scoring. I never missed one on the practice tests and can’t imagine I did on PSAT, SAT or GRE either.

      2. Well why don’t we just make it up to ten?

        Then ten would be the top number.

  8. All have won and all must have prizes. The problem is believing there are objective standards of facts and truth and knowledge. If Billy gets all the answers “right”, he deserves an A for doing the best that he can, but Bobby also deserves an A for doing the best he can even though he only scored a 34 on the test. And who’s to say that 2+2 does not equal 5, that Ferdinand Magellan was not the fourth President of the United States, that Paris is not the capital of Mexico or that water does not consist of two atoms of helium and one atom of polonium? If Bobby subscribes to a different version of the truth than Billy, he is to be applauded for his creativity and his thinking outside the box rather than condemned for failing to adhere to the rigid conformity of the white supremacist patriarchy.

    1. You’re correct. However, Bobby will be in for a VERY rude shock, when he tries to get himself a well-paying job, in ANYTHING other than academia or Government Almighty… And even then, he’d darn well have to score high in “victimhood” to get one of those jobs!

      1. Have you not heard of corporate diversity goals? Gotta have somebody besides white and asian males for the annual report photos.

        1. Somebody should start a company that only hires underprivileged males from poor backgrounds… Based on merit. It would end up being 98% white and Asian dudes who were born poor, but kick ass. As I’ve seen similar nonsense for women and such it couldn’t POSSIBLY be illegal right?

          You could just see the progs lining up to freak out and sue you out of existence.

  9. The politics of envy without the mask:

    “CEOs get $800,000 pay raise, leaving workers further behind”
    […]
    “NEW YORK (AP) — Did you get a 7% raise last year? Congratulations, yours was in line with what CEOs at the biggest companies got. But for chief executives, that 7% was roughly $800,000.
    Pay for CEOs at S&P 500 companies rose to a median of $12 million last year, including salary, stock and other compensation, according to data analyzed by Equilar for The Associated Press.”
    https://oklahoman.com/article/feed/9917203/ceos-get-800000-pay-raise-leaving-workers-further-behind

    Note ‘the workers’ were not shorted, and in fact, got the same rate of increase, but since the CEO started at a higher amount, that’s ‘unfair’!
    Also note that AP payed someone to provide provenance for this bullshit.

    1. Also note that, if a rich person pays taxes at a lower rate but much, mich more $$ than a poor person, that’s unfair, too.

      1. Simplified: rich person = unfair. Just ask any Progressive.

      2. Why not just put the janitor in charge? I mean it’s not like those CEOs are really rare types of people who are far above average intelligence, work themselves to the bone 100 hours a week, and have decades of experience in their industries or anything… Everybody knows we’re all exactly equal, and anybody could be the CEO of a fortune 500 company. It’s all just luck and racism that put those guys in their current positions anyway!

  10. If all you could get was a liberal arts degree, you’d love grade inflation, too.

  11. just before I looked at the paycheck four $6755, I accept that my friend could realey making money in there spare time online.. there friend brother haz done this less than 22 months and resently cleard the morgage on their appartment and purchased a great new Acura. I went here,

    1. For god sakes, man, tell us: where?!?!?!?’cn

  12. That’s why standardized tests were started, because some high schools grade easier than others. But now they’re adding an “adversity score” to the SAT…..

    1. Had to look up the adversity score. It is independent of the actual scores and is only provided to colleges, not to the students themselves. It is based on the socioeconomic state of the student’s home town and school. Of course, it won’t take long for those scores to leak to every school that cares.

      1. Cue rich people moving to bad neighborhoods for their childrens senior year of HS! Just like people go out of their way to claim some form of victim class privilege, they will not want to pretend to be poor too. Incentives do incentivize behavior after all…

        1. No, cue rich people renting an apartment that will sit empty in a bad neighborhood for mailing address purposes only. Their kids will still live in the mansion and go to private school.

          Move to a bad neighborhood? Please.

  13. My college graded on a curve, but it was pretty easy. 30 percent As, 60 percent Bs, 10 percent Cs, and you pretty much had to try to get a D or an F.

  14. “Not so anymore. Since the late 1960s, universities have increasingly suffered from grade inflation and an emphasis on ensuring that all admitted students graduate. At the same time, schools have become more liberal about accepting applicants based on unorthodox qualifications, from athletic ability to nonacademic accomplishments, disadvantageous backgrounds, and demonstrated social “awareness.””

    Since the late 1960’s colleges have increasingly been faced with the problem of how to keep seats filled once the Baby Boom was past. A student that has linked out is a student that isn’t paying fees. The ’50’s and ’60’s saw a lot of enthusiastic expansion in Higher Education…a trend that hasn’t ever really stopped in some sectors. But to keep that expansion supported, the colleges need to take in a lot of people who wouldn’t otherwise qualify, and KEEP them in. Why, if standards returned to a higher level a lot of Ph.Ds in Comparative Progressive Bullshit might actually have to WORK for a living.

    1. Fair enough… But they could still be graduating a shit ton of people with Cs, which is what many of them might deserve. No excuses for this BS state of affairs!

      1. I’m not offering an excuse, I’m pointing out that the causes are a little different than the author seems to be assuming. As for the unearned a’s and so forth; the Universities are selling the idea that a college education will ensure your future. It’s bullshit. But it’s bullshit that has, so far, stood up. So they pass morons with high grades so that they look good and can (maybe) get a job.

        It’s falling apart on them. Which is why we’re seeing attacks on the ‘for profit’ colleges. The Universities are trying to deflect attention from their own flaws.

        Make some popcorn; this train wreck is going to be ongoing for a while.

        1. Can’t say I disagree. Honestly, there is a place for formal education… I just think a lot more of it could be technical school type stuff, and/or specific skill certifications.

          With all the talk of people possibly needing to change careers 27.3 times in their working life or whatever going forward, doing a 3 or 6 month class to learn a particular thing seems a lot more useful than 4 years learning… Nothing practical in many cases.

          I certainly hope the status quo changes going forward though. Because it is bunk right now.

  15. It’s no surprise a professor advocates for better education.

    What’s surprising, is Reason doesn’t say or add anything about the fact that governments have essentially been running the schools, and are entirely responsible for the dumbing down and grade inflation. How about advocating separating school and state the same way we separate church and state? There’s no reason for government to respect an educational institution or to prohibit them either. And there’s much to be said for a free market in education.

  16. Old joke.

    Four students who have blown off the course decide on an all-nighter to cram on a road trip. They get more involved in the case of beer, wake up late and miss the final exam.

    They decide on a plan of action. They show up in the professors office later and explain that they had rented a room to study and had a flat tire which was why they missed the exam.

    The professor says “ fine, you can make up the exam. Just come back tomorrow at 1:00”

    They do and he hands them each a sealed exam book and directs them to separate rooms. “Just come out when you have finished”

    They do so and open the books.

    There is one question.

    Which tire?

  17. The business model universities use is hard-broke from many perspectives. Not sure what “ability to get in” has to do with anything?

    What kind of business limits its number of customers? Were I running a U, I’d admit anyone whose check didn’t bounce. I wouldn’t kick failing students out. They can keep trying to pass for as long as they have money to pay for the service I’m providing.

    My reputation would not hinge on how hard I make it to get in, but on the quality of the graduate I provide to the employer who needs to hire him. Want a good job when you’re done? Employers value the skills we’ll provide you with, if you master them…

    1. I do not know how much it still exists.

      The mission of the university for many centuries is not just to produce useful employees.

    2. That’s kind of how private colleges work. That’s why I only trust grades from a state school. Most state schools don’t give a fuuuuck if they fail you.

      1. “Most state schools don’t give a fuuuuck if they fail you.”

        I don’t know which state schools you are thinking of, but that has not been my experience (which, granted, was about 4 decades or more ago). Michigan State University basically made it impossible to flunk out. You could flunk every class in a term (which even then was pretty difficult; in non-STEM classes, you basically had to assault a professor to get less than a C), and it would still give you a second, third and fourth chance. And that was in the early 1970s. Then, at University of Illinois, as a TA for Business Law, I was instructed by my supervising professor that I was not permitted to give anything less than a C for a final grade. Students who didn’t buy the text books, skipped two-thirds of the classes, and never got above 30% right on a multiple choice test (where random chance would get you 25% right) were still given a C.

        1. My experience is quite different.

          I was utterly unmotivated when I showed up at University, and the grades I earned that year proved it. So I enlisted, and came back later. That one year dragged down my GPA sufficiently that when it was time to apply for law school, my undergraduate GPA was 4th percentile among law school applicants that year.

    3. “My reputation would not hinge on how hard I make it to get in, but on the quality of the graduate I provide to the employer who needs to hire him”

      I think employers definitely try to make the reputation system work that way. I always read about their complaints about the quality of graduates. But it’s hard to take them very seriously when they aren’t paying the tuition. In fact, in a freer market they might have to hire even less experienced young people (at lower salaries) and do more apprenticeships or at least some kind of on the job training

    4. “What kind of business limits its number of customers?”

      Any business that has both high costs of expansion and is already running at capacity.

      Luxury products are often marketed this way, too.

  18. My college graded on a curve, but it was pretty easy. 30 percent As, 60 percent Bs, 10 percent Cs, and you pretty much had to try to get a D or an F.

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  19. Caltech does not calculate students’ freshmen year grades in their cumulation GPA. I’m sure other elite schools also do not. State schools do. Most students at elite schools, including Caltech, have someone making sure they don’t fall off the radar; not quite hand holding, but close enough. At a state school, to have to find your way. Your one tiny fish in a population of ten, twenty, thirty thousand. No one cares about you but you.

    Sorry, but I’ll take someone’s 3.0 in STEM from a state school over a 4.0 from an elite school.

    1. And I will recommend what I used to do as a campus recruiter: use grades (and specific classes) as a broad indicator, and then interview the shit out of the applicant (and back that up with candid faculty comments from a few profs I trusted).

  20. the idea that liberal arts is “easier” is not quite true. Over the years it has been dumbed down in ways that is harder to do with STEM subjects. After all there are only so many ways to do a math problem, but (arguably) many different ways to interpret a historical text. The problem is that the rigour has entirely dropped out of classical liberal arts education, including the insistence on competence in a foreign language – historically to the point that one would be expected to be able to read academic level texts in the language.

    This is a problem not only in the US but in many parts of the world and not only at the tertiary level, but also secondary schools.

    1. What’s left of the liberal arts in American academia have degenerated into pseudointellectual bullshit departments.

      -jcr

    2. “competence in a foreign language –”

      How about competence in the English language. Many students at US colleges cannot read or write English at a level one would normally think necessary to complete higher-level university courses in liberal arts.

  21. Your comment about the difficulties of graduating from CalTech rang true. I entered as a freshman in 1966 intending to become a chemical engineer. My encounters with freshman chemistry convinced me otherwise, but exposure to the primitive time sharing service showed me a true career path in computer science. There being no such major at that time, I transferred after 3 semesters. I wonder sometimes what life would have brought had I found something of interest at CalTech and toughed it out.

  22. I asked for Chinese language classes for a few years at Penn State. They started them the year after I graduated. Yet, I learned Mandarin. I have been living in Taiwan for a long time.

  23. The problem with valorizing STEM fields of study – and holding up people with STEM backgrounds as any kind of “experts” when it comes to pronouncements of policy – is that these fields don’t (apparently) produce graduates or experts with the requisite skills in rhetoric, analytical reasoning, or critical thinking needed to avoid the silliest biases or logical leaps.

    Further to the point: to what extent does grade inflation actually matter? What merit do we have for this otherwise unsupported assertion that failure rates correspond to academic “rigor”? John doesn’t say. He simply takes for granted that his readers, biased already against “left-leaning liberal arts programs,” are engaged in a degree of grade inflation that does not correspond to the quality of teaching or of graduates. Similarly, that STEM programs push out a higher proportion of students who embark on STEM programs of study is taken to be a self-evident indicator of their rigor.

    Having studied on both sides of the STEM divide – and in multiple areas on both sides – I’d wager that failure rates have less to do with anything approaching “rigor” and more to do with (i) the sorts of students who initially self-select into STEM programs and (ii) the kinds of pedagogy they encounter once there. Simply put, a lot of the fellow students I found in STEM programs were there for the quick buck – thinking that STEM would be an on-ramp to a successful career, regardless of their personal interest or aptitude in the area. In addition, many of the professors I found in STEM areas were simply indifferent to “teaching” students, so that the majority of students who did well were students who already came to the programs with the skills and experience necessary to succeed.

    It is certainly true that some courses of study in STEM are lab- and work-intensive, tending to burn out students unprepared for the workload. I’ll further concede that many humanities-based programs – though not all – are not as demanding. But there is nothing said or argued here that suggests that this, in itself, is a problem.

    1. I think it kind of comes down to the fact that somebody who learns all the shit needed to saaay build a billion dollar bridge across a river that won’t fall down most likely has more skill and diligence than somebody who gets a degree in Zulu Finger Painting Methods or WTF ever. On average mind you.

      Not that many dunces will make it through STEM studies, whereas lots of dunces can make it through with a Gender Studies or Fine Arts degree or whatever nonsense. That’s not to say there aren’t SOME brilliant people who study various artsy fartsy degrees, but percentage wise I think the entire universe kind of understands the above to be true.

  24. This nonsense has been going on for a long, long time, and not just in colleges. As late as 1930, only a minority of students obtained a high school diploma; the 8th grade was as far as most went. BUT the standards for obtaining that 8th grade education were a LOT higher than they are today, much higher, in fact, than what it takes to get a high school diploma. Someone with just an 8th grade education in 1920 or 1925 knew a hell of a lot more about algebra, geometry, world history, geography, classical literature, and more, than just about any high school graduate from 2018 that you can find.

    And the sad result of grade inflation today is that even students with the capacity to handle rigorous work have little or no incentive to do so, and are in fact encouraged to just slide by. Many, many years ago, when I was attending law school at the University of Illinois, I spent a year as a Teaching Assistant for a junior-level class in Business Law in the College of Commerce at UofI. Each semester, I had two sections of 20-25 students; the Professor gave two lectures a week in a big lecture hall, and the TAs handled the “discussion sections”. Out of my two sections, I had no more than 3-4 students who actually read the assigned material before coming to class. I had more students in each section who didn’t even bother to buy the assigned textbooks. When I was administered the tests, two during the semester plus a final, cheating was rampant, but I was prohibited from failing anyone. At the end of the semester, I had to assign grades, but I was told that I could give not less than 40% A grades, not less that 80% of A and B grades, and nothing lower than a C, even if the student failed every test and learned nothing (and I had a few of those in every section). With the admission requirements for the College of Commerce, it was NOT the case that these students were incapable of learning. There was simply no incentive to make any effort.

  25. Isn’t grade inflation predictable from the Flynn Effect, the slow but steady rise in measured IQ scores across the population?

    1. The Flynn Effect is canceled. The Millennial Generation broke it into thousands of tiny pieces.

    2. Flynn Effect has played out in 1st world nations… But also was not likely a true rise in IQ, beyond maybe a couple points. People have however been trained to deal with certain types of thinking better than in the past, which is what caused the bump most likely.

      So, it would not be entirely crazy to suggest what you do… But there seems to be a TON of evidence that isn’t what is going on. They’re simply decreeing that people be given better grades with lower objective test scores.

  26. we tell young people that their self-worth hinges entirely on the brand name on their college diploma.</em.

    Typical statement from an ivory tower academic who doesn't appear to know shit about the real world.

    FACT is that what we adults tell young people about their self-worth doesn't matter a damn. What does matter is what jobs are available after HS without that degree. THAT's the alternative to going to college – and that is what has diminished over the last couple generations. In 1947, with the GI Bill helping returning WW2 veterans pay the bill, college enrollment was roughly 2.3 million. Half of them were GI's. So 1 million out of 16 million went to college. The other 15 million saw no need to go to college and they were clearly able to start families and earn a living to support them.

    It ain't about their 'self-worth'. It's about their NET worth. And it ain't so much that college provides preparation for those jobs now. It's that college provides the credential that lazy employers use as a screen before they hire anyone.

    It's a broken system with both academics and employers benefiting from keeping kids who needn't be in school in school.

    1. For once, I can’t say I disagree with you much. Thankfully a lot of people seem to be realizing what a scam it is, and are not falling into the trap. TONS of people still are, but the tide seems to be changing. I bet college enrollment is going to plunge as a percentage of the population in the coming years. Too many people are realizing that becoming an electrician (and other such fields) pays better than almost any college degree, and you don’t have to get into a mountain of debt to get into the field.

  27. This stuff has presumably been getting worse and worse and worse for decades… I think it was slightly less bad in some ways even when I was in school in the 90s and 2000s.

    One thing that is pretty indicative of this though from my personal experience is this: I always found it strange that people feared tests, including fairly diligent semi-smart people. It was because their overall grades generally went DOWN because of tests. They excelled on doing repetitive fluff work, but didn’t actually know the material. They were afraid because they weren’t really up to snuff.

    I on the other hand often fucked off homework or other stuff from time to time, knowing that I would ace every test I ever took, and end up with almost solid As still. I knew I knew my shit, and hence wasn’t afraid. My favorite was when I got over 100% (because of bonus questions) on my Honors Algebra I final in middle school, like a G!

    This type of grading, basically creating a system where people who don’t know their shit can still get good grades, is exactly the problem. Finals and mid terms, objective measures of knowledge, should count for MOST of the grade. Whether or not you can painstakingly cheat on homework by googling answers shouldn’t have almost any effect at all on grades.

    I think we need to maintain objective standards, but at least in HS or CC perhaps let people continue on with Cs and Ds. Somebody should perhaps be able to graduate with poor grades, but it should be known that they only just barely slid through. Giving them fake Bs and As is nonsense, and takes away the ability for people to evaluate them correctly in the future.

  28. Back in the olden times, schools recognized that some students benefitted from a rigorous academic workload, and some did not. For the ones who did not learn best from sitting in a classroom and reading a stack of books, they offered classes to serve those kids. The kids sitting in AP Physics didn’t have a lot of overlap with the kids sitting in Wood Shop. Then came mandatory school testing, and budget cuts that could either cut things that taught the tests, or things that taught the students, and the tests won.

    College attendance has expanded. There’s still the academically-gifted students, but now there’s other groups, too. They’re trying to serve the students who would have gotten vocational classes in high schools, before budget cuts killed all the vocational classes in the public schools.

  29. […] Make School Hard Again. Grade Inflation Needs to Stop 3 by pseudolus | 0 comments on Hacker News. […]

  30. […] Make School Hard Again. Grade Inflation Needs to Stop 3 by pseudolus | 0 comments on Hacker News. […]

  31. […] Make School Hard Again. Grade Inflation Needs to Stop 3 by pseudolus | 0 comments on Hacker News. […]

  32. […] Make School Hard Again. Grade Inflation Needs to Stop 8 by pseudolus | 1 comments on Hacker News. […]

  33. […] Make School Hard Again. Grade Inflation Needs to Stop 8 by pseudolus | 1 comments on Hacker News. […]

  34. […] Make School Hard Again. Grade Inflation Needs to Stop 8 by pseudolus | 1 comments on Hacker News. […]

  35. First, the term “STEM” needs to be dropped. It was first used in the early 2000’s as Social Justice accounting of women in math and science classes and jobs but has expanded in K-12 to the point where there isn’t much math and science in much of STEM… there doesn’t need to be much “technology” involved to allow a proud school administrator to crow “We do STEM!” without even having a proper 12th grade physics class using trig and at least differential calculus. Math and science, with engineering presented as an applied science, which it is, and not specifically taught in K-12.

    The scandalous issue in my mind is the very low performance of teachers, new and old, on tests such as the SAT. It’s the lowest performing college students who become K-12 teachers. One of them, a fellow named Phil Daro, entered UC Berkeley in the ’60’s intending to study nuclear physics. But that was hard, so he changed majors to Math, but that was also too hard and so he graduated with a degree in English. Not to worry, he got involved with math education issues, even being picked in ’92 to run the effort in writing a new Mathematics Framework for California Public Schools, which poured what was derisively called “whole math” in California and ignited “the Math Wars”, which took nearly 10 years to largely expel the worst of the whole math texts from the state.

    Not to worry: Daro got another chance and was hired to be the chairman and lead author of the Common Core math standards, where he did it again, this time it was the whole country. And he still just has the BA in English.

  36. This post might as well have been titled Make School Racist Again.

    1. Why? Because you ASSUME that minority students are less capable of handling rigorous course work? It is that assumption which is racist. Unfortunately, that racist assumption is pervasive in many public school systems throughout the country. Black student who do very well on mathematics skills tests are still kept out of advanced and honors classes, even though their test results would easily qualify them, because some education functionary has decided that they won’t succeed in the more difficult classes.

      1. That’s a load of horseshit.

        They’re trying to push as many minorities as possible into classes they’re unprepared for, just to have them there. Everything from IQ scores to every standardized test ever done shows that Jews, Asians, and whites, in that order, outscore other ethnic groups 100% of the time.

        You can argue all day long about WHY that is… But it is a hard fact, the entire world over. Period.

        ALSO, they were being a smart ass, BTW. You must not be familiar with that poster.

  37. “Who is losing in this new system?”

    Nobody because the system only works if people are oblivious to grade inflation, which they are not. Back to the real world: recent college graduates are in the same entry level jobs as high school graduates because the free market has known that degrees are often meaningless and have been for decades. Good students who are terrible employees fail while good employees rise regardless of their academic performance.

    If anyone has lost, it’s the students, irrespective of their academic performance, who fell for the narrative and played the “If I get good grades I will succeed” game.

  38. “Collegeinflation.com shows…” no it doesn’t. GradeInflation.com maybe.

  39. Nothing will ever change because it would force people to face the fact that most of them, and their kids, are fucking retards.

    1. This whole thing really needs to change… It may sound mean, but back in the day people understood and accepted their place. It doesn’t have to be in a mean way… But 150 years ago a lot of people realized “I’m not the brightest… That guy over there who can read and write all fancy is my better, and I will give a limited amount of deference to that, and accept that I won’t have all the same opportunities as that guy.”

      Nowadays with all the egalitarian thinking almost nobody can accept reality for what it is… I’ve known a few friends who openly accepted that they weren’t that bright, and didn’t let it phase them… But I’ve known far more morons who refused to accept it, often to their detriment.

      I was blessed with a high IQ… But I’m a couple inches below average height. I can accept this innate flaw in my DNA, why can’t people accept being a bit below average intelligence?

  40. “Use to” / “Used to”: http://www.5minuteenglish.com/mar20.htm

    Or perhaps you and your editors suffer from a “relaxed” liberal arts degree.

  41. The college admissions game is largely about signalling that an applicant will be successful.

    Sadly, there is no direct indicator of self-management skills. Since time immemorial, there have been not particularly gifted kids who were getting straight A’s in high school with little effort. Used to be that TEACHERS were highly engaged with teaching the brightest kids (and probably went into teaching for that positive aspect). Now have been legally and contractually saddled with the burden of “no child left behind” and now have to ignore the A students to focus on the lazy, lackluster ones. In the past, the quality of a teacher’s letter of reference would be the best signal of whether an A student was a slacker of questionable character, or a promising, inciteful individual capable of overcoming challenges, etc. Today, public school teachers are more likely to shower some basic platitudes and refer to the transcript for their top students because they simply haven’t been allowed to develop relationships mentoring those students.

    As a result, it is necessary to have other activities throughout high school where mentoring relationships can evolve and culminate in a meaningful letter of reference. Athletic coaches. Clubs. Even community service organizations (not the fake public school: “you must have X community service hours to graduate” stuff). This is where the character of the individuals can be sifted through and signaled. Sadly, as unethical individuals have proved willing to write letters for money that have no basis in fact — the credible thing to the Singer scandal were the fake coaches recommendation letters; if there really were people changing scores at the College Board/proctors changing answers, then why haven’t they been named and indicted?!)

    In the end, we need to adopt a meaningful substantive standardized tests, like the BAC (which, ironically, the French president is abandoning in order to promote his liberal agenda). As it stands currently, the AP exams stand in as a proxy for such a test, but due to their pick-and-choose nature, and the fact that it is still largely depending on the affluence of a school district whether AP classes are offered, it makes a poor yardstick. Furthermore, the greedy College Board, who runs the AP program, has decided to milk it’s cash cow but offering questionable AP certifications. For example, rather than one AP Comp Sci. test, they now offer AP Comp Sci A — a class that resembles are real CS101 college course, but also AP Comp Sci principles, which resembles a non CS department core-class in computing for liberal arts majors.

  42. Lenoir Rhyne University where I went to did not want a essay or a cover letter of your extracurricular activities, they wanted my SAT scores and two reference letters from my teachers, one from a core curriculum teacher (Math, Science, Lang. Arts) and one from a non core class. I thought great this school is going to be easy to get in to and I liked there academic programs. I had been turned down my frist choice state school, and because my Grandfather had been putting money away from when my Dad dropped out of college for his future Grandchildren I had no cash restrictions, so off the application to L-R went. I got in. I went a year and a half and was doung well academicly, it was challenging. Then I has some social issues pop up that required me to take a break for a few semesters. So I went home and went to Nortern Virginia Community College were everything was super easy. When I returned a year later to LR I discovered it was a lot harder for new students to get now. I was just returning from a sabbatical according to the university register, so I never actually had to reapply to get in. This is when I had a professor who declared tests arbitrary and we were going to have only written term papers and our involvement in lectures making our grade. Also he was only giving out A’s or F’s. So you had to go to class and you had to be active, or you knew you would fail. He admitted at the end of the semester it was a experiment to see if we learned more, and he was satisfied we did. I don’t know if he still grades that way but I know I’m a better writer because his pushing us hard.

  43. […] 3. John Nye, in opposition to grade inflation. […]