A college degree doesn’t mean what it used to. In my last blog I explained that one reason is because so many people have college degrees nowadays (33% of American adults, vs. just 5% in 1940). As a result, some 37% of recent college graduates are working in jobs that don’t require a college degree.
Reason #2 is because college degrees have been devalued not only in quantity, but also in quality. Graduating from college is supposed to signify an advanced state of knowledge, but anyone paying attention knows that’s far from the case today.
Long ago I was an instructor at the University of Illinois in Chicago, trying to teach barely literate college students how to write intelligent essays. (The fact that barely literate people were and are accepted into college adds to my point about college not being what it used to be.) Then, later in life, I had to suffer through reading countless resumes and cover letters from journalism and English majors who had somehow graduated with college degrees despite minimal command of the English language – yet were applying for magazine writing/editing jobs.
How did all this come to pass? A big reason is grade inflation. A’s are now the most common grade given to college students (more than 42%), and A’s are three times more common than they were in 1960, according to the website gradeinflation.com.
Is this because today’s college students are smarter than ever? That statement doesn’t pass a laugh test. Grade inflation started with the anti-Vietnam War movement of the 1960s, when college students were exempt from the military draft and sympathetic professors inflated grades to keep their students from flunking out of school and being drafted.
The habit has persisted because most college professors want to be popular. Some schools even allow students to grade their instructors, and it’s hard for them to earn a good grade unless they also give them to their students.
While college professors give out A’s like Halloween candy to children, their grading standards have cascaded lower at every level. Students with a B average today are no smarter than the C and D students of yesteryear, while C students most likely would have flunked out in a bygone era. Today’s professors hardly ever flunk anyone.
Grade inflation is most pronounced in liberal arts subjects, especially social studies, gender and ethnic studies, etc., where subjective interpretations come into play. It’s less common in the so-called STEM courses (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) where even the most soft-hearted professor can’t change the fact that 2 + 2 is always going to equal four. It’s no coincidence that liberal arts majors are the ones that have most difficulty finding well-paying jobs after graduation.
Time for a joke: What does a liberal arts major say after he or she graduates from college? The answer: “Is my bedroom in the basement still available?”
Want to know a dirty little secret? The average liberal arts graduate of today is no more educated than high school graduates of the not-too-distant past, when a high school diploma was considered a ticket to success. High school grads of the 1940s and 1950s on the whole were just as skilled in reading, writing and arithmetic as most of the people that today hold bachelor’s degrees. A grandfather of mine never got beyond fourth grade, but he read a newspaper every day and could discuss history, current events and world affairs with greater insight than most of today’s college graduates. He wrote letters that used simple, unadorned language, but he communicated effectively.
I can’t say the same about most of today’s college graduates.
There’s another reason why grade inflation has come about. I’ll deal with it in my next blog.