Ten years ago, 32 percent of graduating seniors received some form of “Latin honors” from the University of Southern California.[1]  This year, 44 percent received “Latin honors.”  Way to go Southern Cal!  Recruiting all those extra smart kids!  I bet the Ivy League schools will be taking their meals standing up after that spanking.  Oh, wait.  Turns out Harvard granted “Latin Honors” to more than half its graduating seniors.[2]

Granting “Latin honors” isn’t based on the subjective direct judgement of individual merit by the faculty members.  It’s based on the more objective quantifiable judgement of Grade Point Average.  So, Southern Cal and all the many other schools granting “Latin honors” to a growing share of graduates is just an artifact of long-term grade inflation.  According on one expert, a 3.7 GPA (on a scale of 4.0) “is just a run-of-the-mill student.”[3]

It starts in the schools.  In 1998, 39 percent of high-school seniors graduated with an “A” average.  In 2016, 47 percent graduated with an “A” average.  Over the same span, the SAT Critical Reading scores fell from an average of 505 to an average of 494; the Math scores fell from an average of 512 to 508.[4]  Students expect to continue their high-school experience in college.  Elite schools claim that they haven’t studied the trend, and don’t know how to explain it.[5]  The situation probably differs at tuition-driven, not-selective schools.  Too many schools pursuing too few students has led the recruiting effort look like feeding time at the shark tank: “Throw in another goat.”  After the admissions office has done what it can, the faculty face a heavy emphasis by their employers on retaining the students who have been admitted.

Grade inflation is like monetary inflation.

It is fueled by a weak authority in charge of controlling the volume of the unit of exchange.   In the case of the schools this could be parental pressure applied through the influence of a school’s reputation on housing prices.  In the case of colleges and universities, it is the desire to attract student dollars.  A strong authority might tell students that they aren’t particularly distinguished, or well-prepared, or hard-working.

It distorts incentives.  Thus, if you can get the same or more money for less work, then you’ll do less work.  If you can’t trust the money to have real value, then you’ll pursue other stores of value.  One form of this could be a flight to non-public schools with a reputation for greater rigor, or to home-schooling.

It favors people, better positioned to exploit the nominal value of a unit of exchange/measure and disfavors people poorly positioned to do so.  Employers, for example, lack any reliable means to evaluate the educational attainment of potential employees.  High GPAs fog over individual differences in both ability and work ethic.

The historical record shows that breaking an inflation is very painful and politically difficult.  People are willing to try this only after conditions have become intolerable.  We aren’t there yet.

[1] That is “cum laude,” magna cum laude,” and “summa cum laude.”

[2] Down from 91 percent in 2001.

[3] Melissa Korn, “You Graduated Cum Laude?  So Did Everyone Else,” WSJ, 3 July 2018.

[4] See:

[5] See “Captain Henri” in “Casablanca.”

Nothing to CLAP about.

There is an exam called the College Learning Assessment Plus.[1] The exam measures how much college students gain between the freshman year and the senior year. It assesses communications skills (reading, writing); analytical reasoning; and critical thinking. Thus, it is applicable across disciplines and measures the “transferable skills” that have long been touted as the real value of a college education.

The results of the CLA+ for 2013-2014 give cause for hope and fear.[2] Of Freshmen who took the test, 63 percent scored below the Proficient level and 37 percent scored Proficient or higher. Of Seniors who took the test, 40 percent scored below the Proficient level and 60 percent scored Proficient or higher. Of Freshmen, 31 percent enter college at a Below Basic level, but by the Senior year this share has been reduced to 14 percent. Similarly, 32 percent of Freshmen score in the Basic level, but by the senior year this had been reduced to 26 percent even as 17 percent have moved up from Below Basic to at least Basic.

So, the good news is that colleges take the 37 percent who are already proficient and make them more proficient; and they take 23 percent who are not proficient and raise them to proficiency. So, sixty percent of college students benefit from attending college.[3]

What’s the bad news? Well, 14 percent of seniors graduate with a Below Basic score and another 26 percent graduate with a Basic, but Below Proficient score. That’s 40 percent who come out of college deficient in the intellectual skills assessed by the CLA+ exam. That is a huge wastage of resources. Of late, much attention has focused on graduation rates and time-to-graduation. Here, the United States has lost its world-leading position and has fallen behind some other countries. The results of the CLA+ exam suggest that the problem is actually worse than it appears because 40 percent of college graduates don’t actually function at a BA level.

There’s a part I don’t understand, but which I will report. Test scores fall in a range between 400 and 1600. The average Freshman score is 1039; the average Senior score is 1128. The average improvement is 89 points. If, for the sake of argument, you subtract the 400 points you get for being able to sign your own name, then the Freshmen average score is 639 and the Senior average score is 728. An 89 point increase amounts to just under a 14 percent.

Still, these reports raise several questions. Why do almost two-thirds of Freshmen start college below the level of proficiency for their group? Furthermore, many students do not go on to college at all. This suggests that K-12 education is failing many students. It also suggests that an increasingly remedial function is being forced on colleges. (At the same time, they are being criticized for loading students and parents with debt and for not graduating students in a timely fashion.)

Is a 14 percent average improvement enough to justify the cost of four years of college? Does the 14 percent improvement push students over some undefined threshold between incompetence and competence? If it does, then the money probably is well spent.

It’s just my opinion, but professors are the least-qualified to understand the nature of the problem. Their children grow up with books, pictures on the walls, a variety of kinds of music playing, trips to cultural events rather than Disney World, experiences valued over possessions, and parents who work all the time. So, their children are usually successful in school and in life.

[1] This is abbreviated as CLA+ so that anxious parents will not be overheard asking other parents “So, how did your kid do with the CLAP?”

[2] Douglas Belkin, “Skills Gap Found in College Students,” WSJ, 17-18 January 2015.

[3] Maybe all of them do, without that showing up in the test scores. Maybe they are marginally more attuned to key skills without quite getting out of the bottom category.