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Grade Inflation Concerns Are Overblown

Throughout the nation’s college and universities, grades are getting higher. In fact, they have been getting higher for eighty years. But suddenly, government officials with too much time on their hands have decided that something needs to be done about it.

The first step in any policy action is to identify a problem that needs to be fixed. In this instance, however, the legislators appear to have skipped right over that step and on to the part where they try to solve it. A new bill in Texas entitled “Honest Transcript” would require public universities to provide information on the average grade for each class attended by the student. The intention is to differentiate a student who received an A in a difficult class with a C average from someone who received an A in an easy class where As were plentiful.

To be sure, it’s not the worst idea ever to come out of Congress, but it neither solves a problem nor treats students fairly. Students should be judged on their own merits, but this act ties perceptions of their achievements to the performance of others. A student has no control over how well or poorly the others in his class will do, but the insinuation is that an entire class of A students is less valuable than a single bright star in a room of dullards.

Higher education is a business, and the only purpose of a business is to do what its customers pay it to do. It is not the business of government to tell a restaurant whether its food is too spicy or whether its chairs are too soft. That is for the customers to decide. If colleges are giving higher grades today, it is because that is what the customers demand, but it need not always be the case. Selectivity and difficulty are desirable qualities in education, and while every parent wants their child to succeed, they also want the prestige that comes from respected universities, and the satisfaction of knowing that success was not overly easy.

Nor will these higher grades lead to any significant educational problems, just as higher grades in the nineteen-forties did not reflect a decline in educational standards from the nineteen-thirties. It is clear that the education system in the United States leaves much to be desired, but lawmakers are focusing on the wrong things in search of an easy fix when they should be tackling the more pressing issues of school choice and empowering individuals to take charge of their own education. If Texas lawmakers really want to improve educational standards, they should begin by breaking the stranglehold in which teachers’ unions currently grip the nation’s schools, but that would be hard, whereas passing meaningless regulations on the permissible contents of college transcripts is all too easy.