Collegiate Castes: Mind the Quality Gap

April 3, 2012

For immediate release (706 words with optional cut)

Current proposals to increase college enrollments won’t magically increase Americans’ academic abilities. Indeed, there is already evidence that many students — even those who graduate — fall far below the traditional standard for college achievement.

That which follows offers a glimpse of the polarization of ability evident today within a university. If college attendance is expanded further, admissions officials will undoubtedly ratchet down the ability roster, and the polarization will be even greater.

First some background: I have been a profess
or of economics since 1968 and am currently in my 35th year at Ball State University. I have taught an array of courses over my career, with the freshman-sophomore principles of microeconomics course my most-frequent assignment. I have not kept a count on the number of times I have taught this course, but it is surely more than 100.

For the last eight or so years, I have taught both an Honors section and a regular section of the microeconomics class in the fall semester. Honors students have been admitted to the university with exceptional high-school credentials. At BSU, less than 10 percent of the students are Honors. While those students always appeared to perform at higher levels than their regular student counterparts, I never quantified the gap until last semester. Last semester, prompted by escalating concern about the consequences of juicing enrollments, I decided to set the two courses up to be as identical as possible and to measure the performance gap between Honors and “regular” students.

Accordingly, I assigned the same textbook, gave the same multiple-choice examinations, gave the same lectures, and had the same attendance requirements for both classes. The two classes even met on the same days — Tuesdays and Thursdays, one at 9:30 a.m. and the other at 12:30 p.m.

Were there still differences? Yes. Regular students usually take the course their sophomore year, whereas Honors students are typically first-semester freshmen, meaning that the regular students presumably have more college classroom savvy. On the other hand, the Honors students completed 13 short-answer essay assignments during the semester in addition to the common examinations. Additional course requirements and rigor are considered part of the Honors experience at BSU. I chose writing.


The tables below show performance on the three examinations. Column 1 shows the number of students taking the examination in each class, column 2 the average score in terms of number of correct answers (the number of questions on each examination in parentheses), column 3 the range of scores.

First Examination
Number of Students Average
(55 possible)
Honors 26 46.65 53-38
Regular 53 35.22 51-23
Second Examination
  Number of Students Average
(50 possible)
Honors 25 40.96 48-31
Regular 48 30.18 45-14
Third Examination
  Number of Students Average
(66 possible)
Honors 26 54.88 65-44
Regular 51 39.57 59-18


It is no overstatement to say that Honors students performed considerably better. The lowest Honors score on each examination exceeded the average score for regular students.

When you convert the average scores into percentages, the percentage-point gaps between for each examination is 20.8, 21.6, and 23.2, respectively. The grade-point averages in the two courses were different as well. On a four-point scale in which C is 2.0, the average was 3.67 in the Honors course and 1.91 in the regular course, roughly one-and-three-quarters letter grades higher. As far as outcomes are concerned, the two courses were effectively two different courses. In my opinion, based on my experience in both classes, the writing component had only a slight influence on the students’ performance.

A final note: I had the same attendance rule for the two classes. My rule: students can miss class four times with no punitive consequences for their course grade (that’s two full weeks of class). Each absence beyond the fourth reduced a student’s course grade one letter grade.

Were there differences in attendance between the two classes? You bet. Absences per student over the semester were 0.76 in the Honors class and 2.84 in the regular class. In other words, the absence rate for regular students was almost four times that of Honors students. Forty-six percent of Honors students had perfect attendance; 19 percent of regular students had perfect attendance. If attendance patterns are proxies for student sloth, the sloth quotient increases as college admissions officials ratchet down the ability roster.

Again, I made a point of keeping the courses similar in content and grading standards, and doing that showed the wide gulf between the Honors students and the rest. If the country follows through on the politicians’ idea that still more young people should be in college, the result will be a further widening of the gulf between the students who are prepared for college and those who aren’t.

In all likelihood this will put professors under increasing pressure to dilute course content and inflate grades. That is another topic for research.

T. Norman Van Cott, Ph.D., an adjunct scholar of the foundation, is a professor of economics at Ball State University. A version of this essay was first posted at by the John William Pope Center for Higher Education.


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