Grade Inflation: The "Customer" Is Not
Always Right

By Tina Blue
June 1, 2002

          Students are not customers.  If they are customers, then they are not students.

          Most colleges and universities have moved far in the direction of viewing their students as customers and education primarily as a "product" or "service" provided to these customers.  The problem with this consumer model of education is that, as any successful retail business knows, you have to please your customers or they will take their money elsewhere.

          Now, what do you think would please most undergraduates?  Difficult classes with rigorous performance standards and strict teachers who insist that deadlines be met and who are fair but inflexible about tying grades to the actual quality of the work?

          No, I don't think so either.

          What most students want is to get the highest possible grades for the least amount of work.  Even most tenured faculty are unwilling to risk the declining enrollments and negative student evaluations that usually go along with a reputation for being a hardass.

          And since 50%-75% of all undergraduate courses in this country are taught either by graduate students or by non-tenured adjunct faculty, for whom negative evaluations and low enrollments will almost certainly mean at least a reprimand and quite probably a termination notice, you can bet they will find it hard not to buckle under pressure to give students higher grades than they deserve.

          Nor can grad students and non-tenured faculty count on the administration to back them up if they try to give a student a grade lower than he demands.  If a student is even a little bit aggressive (and they are often more than that!), the administration will roll over and expect the instructor to do likewise.

          Non-attendance, late papers, poor performance, misbehavior in class, actual cheating--if an instructor tries to lower a student's grade for any of these things, she had better watch out.  Students will complain and so will their parents, and sometimes even their parents' lawyers.

          Besides not wanting to get entangled in possible legal proceedings, the administrators of most colleges and universities do not want to alienate paying customers.  Students are valuable to a university, but adjunct faculty are a dime a dozen.  (Considering what we are paid, this is almost literally true.)

          When parents, administrators, and politicians squawk about grade inflation and the lowering of academic standards, I want to smack them upside the head.  Those of us on the front lines who actually have to assign grades get it from all sides if we don't give almost all our students much higher grades than they deserve.

          It's not just at the college level, either.  When a high school biology teacher in Piper, Kansas, failed several students for blatant plagiarism on a term project worth 50% of their grade, parents complained, and the school board changed the grading formula so that the cheating students would pass the course anyway. 

          The teacher resigned the next day.

          In the past two years, because of the convenience of e-mail, I have experienced yet another kind of pressure toward grade inflation.

          I spell out my grading standards, late-paper policy, and attendance policy in handouts at the beginning of each semester, so there should not be any doubt in a student's mind about what grade he is getting at the end of the semester, or why.

          But now I start getting e-mails from students during the three-week period between the last day of classes and the due date for turning in my final grade sheets.  They tell me they need a "B" (or sometimes even an "A"!) to get off academic probation, to avoid losing a scholarship, or to get into this or that major or professional school. 

          Ironically, I actually warn students throughout the semester not to ask me to fudge their grades.  "I won't feel sympathy," I say, "I will just be really, really angry that you are trying to pressure me like that."

          But one reason students will still pull this stunt is that the sort of student who does so tends also to be the sort who cuts class, so he is likely to miss such warnings.

          Just this past semester a student who had missed enough classes to get an "F" in the course according to my established grading policy, and who had turned in all of his papers on the day of the final exam rather than when they were due during the semester, e-mailed me saying that he'd worked really hard and felt he had made a lot of progress in his writing, so he wanted a "B", since that's what he needed to get into the School of Business.

          Although his papers were all late enough to justify my giving every one of them an "F", and his accumulated absences also justified failing him, I decided to wait and see how he did on his final exam.  His papers were not exactly stellar.  Actually, they were barely "C" quality.  But I decided that if he made a strong "C" on his final, I would go ahead and give him a "C" in the course rather than an "F".

          I have to admit that is a real weakness of mine where grading is concerned.  If a student is able to produce at least "C"-level work, I don't like to fail him if he has attended at least 2/3 of the classes, simply because these kids are so young and often foolish.  I hate to see too many doors locked against them when and if they mature and get their act together.

          But after this student's response to my generosity, I am afraid I will never feel generous again, at least where grades are concerned.

          I got an unpleasant e-mail from him as soon as he found out his grade.  He demanded to know why he had gotten a "C" rather than the "B" he had told me he deserved!  He pretty much ordered me to e-mail him back immediately with an explanation.

          I haven't responded, and I don't intend to.  The way I figure it, I owe this little twerp nothing at this point, including any more of my time.  I have his papers and his attendance record, everything.  If he wants to contest his grade, I have plenty of evidence that I was being quite generous when I assigned that "C".

          But I've gotten so disgusted by this unconscionable pressure from students and by the difficulty of holding students to even modest performance standards that I've decided not to cut fools any slack from now on.  Henceforth, my attendance and late-paper policies will be strictly enforced, and if that means failing a student, so be it.

          If that kid were in my class this coming fall term, he'd get that "F" after all.  Then he wouldn't be e-mailing me wondering how I dared to give him less than a "B".