A recent story reported in The New York Times, in The New York Post, and on network news programs reports that Prof. Maitland Jones of New York University was recently fired after a group of students filed a petition complaining that it was too hard to earn a high grade in his Organic Chemistry class. 

It seems that the course Prof. Jones taught was just too difficult and that Prof. Jones, a respected professor who had been teaching for many years and who even wrote the most often-used textbook on Organic Chemistry, was not helpful enough to students who were earning low grades. According to reports on the news, the underlying problem was that those low grades would hinder the ability of his students, who were mostly pre-med, to gain admission to med schools. 

NYU’s decision to fire a professor because he was not awarding high enough grades seems extreme. Couldn’t the university have taken steps to understand and address what was happening in his class? Apparently not. Maybe NYU felt that entering the fray and asking an instructor to grade less harshly would be an intrusion into academic freedom. 

The Cruel Results of Grade Inflation and Deflation

The hard truth is that no uniform standard can be applied to college grading. A student can work equally hard in different classes and earn quite different grades in each of them. It is just something that happens in college. 

And we have to remember that grade inflation is happening too. A recent article in Education Week reports that grade inflation became nearly rampant in high schools during the Pandemic. Perhaps school districts are eager to keep grades high so that students can continue to be admitted to selective colleges. And perhaps those same school districts know that their ratings would suffer if their students were having a difficult time getting into elite colleges. (Both high schools and colleges, we know, are motivated by the desire to keep their ratings high.)

But whether grades are artificially inflated or deflated, students suffer. Grade manipulation in both high schools and colleges has fallen into patterns like these. (This is anecdotal information, not based on research.)

  • Students at colleges and universities maintain lists of “gut” courses in which it is easy to earn high grades. Students take these courses alongside other courses to keep their GPAs high.
  • Colleges require first-year students to take courses, often English Composition, in which it is very hard to earn a good grade. The thinking seems to be that forcing students to do that will keep them motivated to do better and prove to them that the college they have chosen is sufficiently demanding. 
  • Colleges make sure that it is possible for students to earn high grades in Organic Chemistry and other courses that the need to gain admission to medical school and other selective programs. Conversely, it has been reported that some colleges want students to earn low grades; if they don’t, the colleges seem to reason, it will become easy for students to transfer to other colleges
  • Colleges offer pass/fail courses, but students don’t want to take them. They want to take courses, earn high grades, and have them appear on their college transcripts. But when students opt not to take classes pass/fail and earn poor grades, they are apt to complain. 
  • Colleges make it easy for students to drop courses in which they are not doing well. That is a good practice. But when lots of students withdraw from difficult courses, that can erode the quality of the educational product that the school delivers.

What Can Educators and Students Do?

There are no easy solutions. But if you are a teacher and you want to protect your students from suffering at a college where grades are artificially deflated or inflated, you can research questions like these about the colleges where your students might apply:

  • What percentage of engineering, med, and other students at the school succeed in gaining admission to graduate or professional schools?
  • What percentage of students graduate after four years? And what percentage of students transfer out?
  • What are students at the school complaining about? You can explore this information on college blogs and in news stories.

Another question to ask is, “Is this student a good match for the college where he or she is applying?” Some students thrive under pressure, while others do not. That explains why teachers, college admissions counselors – and parents – should take the time to know students and help guide them to educational options that suit not only their abilities but their personalities and ambitions. 

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If you are a high school educator, be sure to have your students participate in our national student research. This study benefits your students, educators, and non-profits working with youth. Fill out our quick and easy survey request form and get involved in this important work!

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