Grade Inflation in Indiana Higher Education

October 11, 2012

by T. Norman Van Cott, Ph.D.

A little over a year ago, Clarence Deitsch and I published “Too Many Rhinestones.” The article pointed out the grade inflation that had occurred at Ball State University (BSU) in 24 out of 26 entry-level courses between fall semesters 1990 and 2009. For example, 52 percent of the students enrolled in Principles of Marketing in 1990 received grades “A” or “B”; by 2009, 80 percent received “A” or “B”.

The ensuing year produced an interesting string of events. If anyone had told me they were going to occur, I would have responded “dream on, friend.”

Shortly after the article’s appearance, state Sen. Jim Banks brought the issue to the attention of BSU’s president, Jo Ann Gora. Senator Banks, a member of the Senate Education and Career Development Committee, wrote in a May 25 letter that he “was very troubled by (Deitsch and my) assertion that grades are being inflated at Ball State University . . . will your office be developing a plan to combat this issue on your campus?”

President Gora responded with a letter dismissing our evidence, saying that while it was “thought-provoking” we had ignored the improvements in students, faculty and instructional-administrative procedures since 2006.

In the midst of the exchange between Senator Banks and President Gora, the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, an education foundation that favors free markets and limited government, circulated a longer version of our article that included separate comments by BSU’s provost, Terry King. Mr. King echoed President Gora’s theme, i.e., that every day, and in every way, the university is getting better and better. The local newspaper, the Muncie Star Press, ran the story as a June 6 feature article followed the next day by an unsigned editorial. BSU’s student newspaper also carried the story as a feature article on June 13. The article was printed statewide as an op-ed before the issue fell into the summer hibernation that pervades college campuses.

That was quite a lot of publicity. Would it lead to any changes in standards at BSU?

Professor Deitsch and I were surprised when the grade inflation issue resurfaced at BSU’s all-university faculty meeting that fall. Provost King, addressing the faculty, said:

“As noted by our own Professors Deitsch and Van Cott in their publication for the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, grade inflation does exist. I have already asked the deans to look at grade inflation, but it is ultimately the prerogative of the faculty to uphold academic rigor. There is no excuse. That is your job. We owe it to our students, our respective disciplines, and ourselves to uphold standards of academic rigor. And it is one I am confident you understand and embrace.”

So BSU officials became aware of grade inflation during the summer, only to say the problem was beyond their control. Provost King repeated the administrative impotence claim to BSU’s College of Business faculty in May 2012. I wonder if BSU administrators have ever considered factoring course grades into salary, promotion and tenure decisions . . . just a thought.

Whatever, the provost has convened a task force to investigate academic rigor at the university. Please note the disciplines represented. The list, by academic department and starting with the task-force chair, is as follows:
Professor — Landscape Architecture
Assistant Professor (non-tenure track) — English
Associate Professor — Telecommunications
Associate Professor — Information Systems
Professor — Geological Sciences
Assistant Professor — Social Foundations of Education and Multi-Cultural Education
Professor — History
Professor — Exercise Science
Professor — Music (Piano)
Instructor (non-tenure track) — Mathematical Sciences
Professor — Elementary Education
Two students

Call me old-fashioned but when academic matters are at issue, distinguished scholars in, say, biology, chemistry, economics, English, finance, mathematics and psychology are an essential ingredient. Not one is on the BSU task force. English and mathematics faculty are included but they are contract (non-tenure track) professors. With all due respect to these colleagues, academic task forces that do not enjoy input from distinguished scholars in an array of traditional disciplines are apt to make a mockery of their efforts.

And when the task force did meet, its actions did not reflect any urgency. Reporting its progress to the BSU faculty senate in April 2012, the chair noted that while the task force’s effort was about 40 percent complete, it had not yet come up with a workable definition of “academic rigor.”

Senator Banks’ role in the story doesn’t stop with his letter to President Gora. He introduced legislation requiring all state institutions to report grades for general education courses that had class sizes of at least 25 students. It also required that grade data be sorted by tenured faculty, faculty on a tenure track, and non-tenure track faculty, the hypothesis being that the latter two faculty classifications use easy grades to “purchase” good evaluations from students in order to obtain tenure or continued employment. The bill passed the state senate 49-0 last session but was not taken up in the House of Representatives.

The bottom line is that “Too Many Rhinestones” so stirred the Indiana higher-education establishment that grade inflation became an issue in a multitude of venues. Quite a few people in the state are upset over the slipping of academic standards but — sadly — those who could do something about it would rather just see the issue go away.

T. Norman Van Cott, Ph.D., is an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation and a professor of economics at Ball State University. A version of this essay first was posted June 17 by the Pope Center at http://www.popecenter.org/about/author.html?id=322>.



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