The brutal killing of George Floyd has prompted wide-ranging conversations about elements of systemic racism in our society. I want to flag one such element at the heart of our higher education system, perhaps to spur some conversations here and elsewhere with fellow academics.
I have long suspected that grade inflation in the humanities marks a subtle and so all the more insidious contributor to the persistent racial hierarchy in our country. To begin with, the compression of grade ranges at the college level serves a certain class: students possessing the basic academic literacy that attends a privileged socioeconomic upbringing are all but guaranteed a B, B+, or even A- (student comments on sites like ratemyprofessor.com point to the ease of getting such grades) as long as they can complete and turn in the minimally required work. Because far more white students come from the middle and upper classes, they are more likely to benefit from this system than blacks. Grade inflation indeed lifts the vast majority of white students into the 3.3+ GPA category — a level that qualifies them for highly lucrative careers in business and law. Our grading protocols — the result of silent pressure from a fee-based and thus customer service-oriented system — thus perpetuate a racialized socioeconomic cycle from one generation to the next.
Here are the startling facts:
1. 60%-70% of white students have GPAs in excess of 3.3; and 40% of them have GPAs in excess of 3.5. That means that up to 70% have a B+ average; and 40% average between an A- and a B+ in their classes.
2. Matriculants to ranked law schools outside the top 10 have an average GPA of 3.4; matriculants to top 50 business schools outside the top 10 have an average GPA of 3.2 to 3.4. This means that the vast majority of white college students have the grades to get into a ranked business or law school. (Bs and B+s, in other words, are adequate for the pursuit of a lucrative career. That may be perfectly fine; the question is whether the “B” is largely a marker of class and cultural capital — keep reading.)
3. Significant racial disparities exist between the GPAs of black and white students. Only 20% of black students have a GPA greater than 3.5. 45% have a GPA under 3.0.
4. Since the mean GPA of a white student is 3.4; and since 75% of white students and the majority of black students have an average between a B and an A; it follows that the bar for a B is quite low. (One gets a B for registering one’s impressions in a manner that echoes an instructor’s predilections and resonates minimally in our academic culture, even if in prose marred with errors in diction and grammar. My own experience as a teacher — along with that of many of my colleagues — corroborates the fact that a baseline — emphasize baseline! — college prep education, a modicum of relevant social and cultural capital, and the meanest effort is enough to guarantee a B.)
5. White students have much more social and cultural capital than black students: on balance, whites are more likely to have parents, grandparents, and other family members that went to college and are more likely to have access to tutors, books, and the internet. 1 in 7 white students come from families with a net worth over $1 million, compared to 1 in 50 black families (the economic disparities are well known). Whites also face fewer financial or job pressures while in school; are more likely to live on campus and understand campus culture; etc.
6. The system thus effectively guarantees that white students with a minimal level of academic literacy and social and cultural capital will get a B or better — and thus be able to pursue careers in the lucrative fields of business or law despite the fact that their grades mean very little.
7. Many businesses and law firms provide on-the-job training in a specialized area. As a result, a mediocre white student with middling grades in high school can get into a public university (many of which are subsidized by the state and have very low bars for entry); perform passably in college; still get into a top 50 business or law school; and then continue to have opportunities for and additional chances at success through on-the-job training.
8. Poor white students whose parents did not go to college are also hurt by the grade inflation system. Our society has become so deeply class-stratified, however, that few poor whites in this category make it to college in the first place: only 28% of whites in college are the first in their family’s history to attend an institution of higher education.
The effect of grade inflation is to ensure that grades “mean” in a manner that allows a certain class and race to maintain its relative station. Per the current protocol in the academy, grade stratification has been compressed from 10 levels (A to F) to, in effect, just 5: A, A-, B+, B, and then a rare “bad” grade below a B. The effect is to separate students into three groups: “stellar” students (who could be bound for medical schools, elite law schools, and graduate study at elite science and humanities programs); “good enough” students earning a B or better (who can attend a mid-range non-elite business or law school that will still position them for monetary success in life); and “not good enough students” (who are largely excluded from these avenues to high-paying jobs in business, law, and other such fields).
Having evolved over years, grade inflation break points have settled so as to position the vast majority of white students in the first or second category. Almost half of black students, on the other hand (especially those who are first-generation college students and who don’t have the social and cultural capital of white students), fall into the third category.
In a word, grade inflation has removed the meaningful stratification of white college students while continuing to “discriminate” (in every sense) against a large number of less privileged black college students.
(To be clear, there is no active, organized conspiracy here: rather systemic pressures inflect grading methodologies in a manner that produces the desired result. Certain students and their families feel entitled to decent grades; those with college educated parents are more likely to pay tuition; such parents do not want to hand over money for B-s and Cs; they can and do demand a return on investment; and colleges comply: the customer, after all, is always right.)
How can we address this situation? It’s true that there’s no way to standardize grades within the humanities, much less across the humanities and sciences. Even so, grades constitute a common language — and graduate schools interpret grades as though they marked a standardized level of performance.
What if we confronted this fact and tried to apply finer standards that didn’t so neatly lower the bar for most white students? What if a B for a humanities paper required not basic academic literacy reflecting a modicum of social and cultural capital, but rather a well-structured argument in prose largely free of errors in grammar and diction? (Sadly, the vast majority of papers in my courses would suddenly not qualify for a B. In this vein it bears mentioning that by giving the illusion that most students are able to earn As and Bs in the humanities when most cannot write logically structured, much less critically complicated essays, grade inflation in fact perpetuates our societal blindness to the failure of our pre-tertiary education to prepare the majority of white and black students for the rigors of a liberal arts education.)
If there were much more stratification on a 10 level scale from A to F, then one would expect a much wider range in grades on the transcripts of both white and black students. Mediocre white students’ work would be subject to much greater scrutiny. Graduate schools would then have to do far more due diligence in sorting through the pack of students with a 2.0–3.0 GPA — which would presumably include a much greater mix of white and black students — and find other ways of selecting students from this group. (I’m thinking of in-school writing samples to ensure that applicants are doing their own writing; video responses to particular scenarios; more in-person interviews; and other processes that allow graduate schools to get to know applicants better.)
The purpose here isn’t to be mean-spirited about students’ work or grade harshly in the name of academic purism; I’m also not advocating a revanchist program with respect to a particular group. What I am flagging is that business, law, and other such schools use GPAs to discriminate between students that are and are not “good enough” in a manner that ultimately privileges the social and cultural capital of economically advantaged white families.
If this analysis holds, we can add grade inflation to the long list of elements in higher education that privilege college-educated whites and underwrite their success in our society:
— Tutoring and prep courses for standardized tests
— Essay-writing assistance on college applications (from parents or paid professionals)
— Legacy status (a parent or grand-parent went to a particular college)
— Donations (“development cases” allow mediocre children to attend schools to which they would otherwise not be admitted)
— “Personality” (whites are given points for “personality” by many admissions officers — see the startling evidence unearthed in the recent lawsuit against Harvard University)
— Recruitment of athletes playing the sports of the rich, like sailing, skiing, fencing, squash, lacrosse, etc., especially at elite schools
— Access to psychological services and accommodations on tests
— Subsidized public college education (massive cash transfers to state schools represent a wealth transfer from the poor to the middle and upper class)
— College recruitment and placement services at public schools funded by property taxes in wealthy districts (so that students get a leg up not through merit, but rather because they come from rich families)
For anyone with doubts about the malignant effect of these crutches and props for white students on the exercise of power in our society, just consider the number of less than competent leaders in our nation that have pedigrees from Ivy League, top 50, or even top 100 schools. We’re not just talking about Donald Trump and his children. Remember Dan Quayle? George W. Bush? Sean Spicer? Look up a youtube video of these figures talking, if only for a laugh.