Now that we find ourselves between semesters, with bluebook piles marked up and cleared from our desks, I’d like to start a conversation on a topic about which everybody these days seems to have an opinion: grade inflation. The topic comes up frequently in The Chronicle of Higher Education, the AHA’s Perspectives on History, and similar academic publications. Lately, though, the general press has been writing about grade inflation to an unusual degree. The latest discussion has been prompted by revelations that Harvard College gives out As more often than any other grade, boosting the average mark to an A-.
The responses in the The Atlantic and the The Harvard Crimson are pretty familiar: critics worry that giving out too many high marks renders grades meaningless and diminishes students’ motivation and reward for exceptional work; defenders claim that grades reduce higher education to a credentialing process and undermine the intrinsic incentives for learning. The defenders of grade inflation further point out the difficulty of standardizing grades across courses and institutions. “Given that students choose different majors and take different classes at different times with different instructors and varying commitments of variable intellectual value outside the classroom, can there be any doubt that class rank is itself highly arbitrary?” asks Conor Friedersdorf in The Atlantic. Some have made the argument that students at leading institutions such as Harvard have sufficiently distinguished themselves by earning their admission, and hardly need external pressure to do well.
I’m sure readers of this blog have plenty of thoughts on the topic, but the question I’d like to pose is how grade inflation impacts how both students and the general public regard the value of a history degree. As we all know, U.S. history departments are going through a period of, to put it optimistically, adjustment, as a lower percentage of undergraduates choose to major in history: 0.6% fewer this year than last. This drop is part of a general decline in humanities degrees: from 7.5% in 2007 to 6.7% in 2011. Ultimately, three times as many students at U.S. institutions receive their degrees in the most popular major, business administration.
The readers of this blog need not be convinced of the intrinsic and extrinsic value of studying history. My personal concern, however, is that grade inflation tends to give students less of an opportunity to seek out courses of study in which they personally excel, and instead encourages them to gravitate toward majors often perceived (if incorrectly) as more likely to lead to high-paying jobs. In other words, if departments across the university give out As with relative ease, does that perhaps lead some talented potential history majors to study business and engineering, where they might do poorly in business, were it not for grade inflation?
By the same token, some might point out, grade inflation may help boost history’s popularity. At a time when business majors are even more likely than humanities majors to find employment below their skill level after graduation, there may be a few current history majors with business talents who are discouraged by grade inflation from pursuing a more “pragmatic” but arguably glutted major, one in which they might otherwise receive exceptional marks. Is this just as hurtful to the standards and prestige of a history degree? If my casual conjecture that grade inflation discourages students from seeking their true paths holds, then by stripping every discipline of its most exceptional talent, grade inflation may perversely justify its own picture of an intellectually homogenous student body.
I’m curious to know how readers of this blog feel. Am I worrying needlessly? In a world that gave out as many Cs as As, what would happen to the quality and quantity of our undergraduate history majors?