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The Fruits of Commodification

Grade inflation is just another byproduct of the neoliberal university.

Memorial Hall, '87 gate, Harvard University. Library of Congress

Since the mantra of running universities “like a business” began in earnest in the 1980s, the cost of attending college has skyrocketed, far outpacing inflation and wage growth. The only thing that’s kept up, it seems, is students’ grades. All across academia — public or private, large or small, “highly selective” or open enrollment — students are receiving much better marks and paying much, much more.

And that’s not a coincidence.

The same forces that have been pushing up the cost of a two- or four-year degree have also helped propel median grades so high they border on meaningless. Most instructors don’t want to give out A’s like candy. Most students aren’t doing A work. Yet here we are, with an A the modal grade in higher ed.

What happens when everyone’s grades are great? When students become graduates and graduates become applicants (for employment, for post-graduate studies, and so on), how is one 3.9 GPA differentiated from another?

The brand name, of course. Prestige and “pedigree” (a term used uncomfortably often these days in academia) dictate which résumés are worth pulling out of the enormous pile that a poor job market inevitably creates. The imprimatur of the most expensive, most exclusive, and most elite institutions opens doors that academic performance alone cannot.

The cachet of the university brand name has always mattered. But when so many students have a transcript with stellar grades, the university logo becomes that much more important. What is more, factors independent of grades become more important as well, namely standardized test scores that can be boosted by throwing money at expensive prep courses.

Two market-driven factors in particular are responsible for watering down the evaluation and grading process: concerted efforts to reduce costs (read: breaking faculty and instructors as a labor force) and the need to attract customers (students) in an increasingly competitive market.

The Labor Problem

It’s no secret that full-time, tenured or tenure-eligible, benefit-earning employment is on the decline in US higher education. Temporary faculty on short-term contracts have joined graduate students — dependent on the good graces of their departments for meager funding — in the “flexible” labor pool. Across the country, the bulk of instruction is now done by people with no job security whatsoever, increasingly heavy workloads, and low salaries.

For administrators at universities where business isn’t booming — and declining enrollments are a problem at many institutions — adjunct labor is ideal. If enough students sign up to justify offering a course, adjuncts can be paid pennies on the dollar to teach it. If enrollment falls, the university can simply drop its contingent workforce.

This isn’t news to anyone who has been paying attention. The anticipated surge in university hiring as Baby Boomers retired has not materialized, largely because tenured, full-time faculty positions can be filled much more cheaply with multiple adjuncts paid piecemeal — no benefits, no commitment, no research funding, no promise of employment beyond the day to day.

All of this is made possible by an oversupply of labor. Universities with PhD- and MA-granting programs have an incentive to accept large numbers of graduate students who can be lassoed into teaching courses, grading, and doing research grunt work on the cheap. The bleak non-academic job market ensures that more PhDs than any academic job market could reasonably absorb into good jobs are minted in any given year.

University administrators, many of whom come to higher education with experience in the private sector, are emboldened: how small of a salary can we offer? How long can we go without giving raises? How many courses can we wring out of a single adjunct for one semester of meager pay?

The ethos in the academic job market today is, “Someone will be desperate enough to do it.” Some PhD holder has been unemployed long enough and is desperate enough to accept a high workload, nine-month term position for $22,000.

And they’re almost always right. Someone is that desperate. The process guarantees that.

The Rational Teacher

Some individuals cannot help throwing their entire heart and soul into the classroom. Even if they’re underpaid and overworked, shuffled from job to job with no security or bargaining power, they take an intense professional interest in the success of each and every student. These people exist. I have seen them, and I admire them.

The vast majority of people, though, respond to the incentives before them like any economist worth her Rational Choice salt would predict. Overworked, temporary faculty try to avoid piling even more work on themselves. Every hour of work they add to their teaching responsibilities takes one hour away from the research and publication that are needed to get full-time work in the future.

I apologize if this is a “there is no Santa Claus” moment, but here’s a secret about teaching in the “run like a business” university: students are far less demanding on one’s time if they receive high grades. They rarely send panicked emails, show up to office hours, or file complaints with higher-ups when they’re carrying an A or B.

If that outrages you, put yourself in the following position. You are getting $2,100 to teach a sixteen-week course with fifty students, many of whom might be deficient in basic academic skills. For that princely sum you have four hours per week in class plus additional office hours. Counting prep time (one to two hours for each hour in the classroom) and grading, you are making somewhere below minimum wage over the course of a semester. And much of the student work you receive, depending on the institution, can be described charitably as less than stellar.

You have two choices. You can correct every writing mistake, leave extensive feedback that the student may not read, and give the kind of low grade that screams, “Please see me, we need to talk.” Or you can give the papers grades they do not properly deserve and be done with it.

But either way, choose quickly — you have to make your decision in the one hour you have for grading between your afternoon adjunct gig and your night school course at the tech college.

Recruitment and Retention

The pressure to inflate grades comes from more than the incentive structure of employment. More degrees are being granted than ever, in part because there are more institutions granting degrees than ever. Student-starved universities are aglow with the buzzword “retention,” emphasizing that the number one goal is to create an environment in which students remain enrolled. In one sense this is positive and useful — encouraging faculty to intervene when students show signs of stress, depression, or academic struggles is essential.

It would be naïve, however, not to recognize the bottom-line motives behind the retention push for what they are: an unsubtle reminder that tuition-paying bodies are in high demand, and students who fail out of school cease paying tuition. Faculty know that high DFW (Drop, Fail, or Withdraw) rates attract attention from their superiors — and not the good kind of attention.

What happens when this scramble to attract “customers” leads universities to accept students who may lack the skills necessary to succeed in college? Of course there is pressure to retain those same students. How? Grade inflation helps, but retention is an expensive endeavor all around: more administrators, more resources needed on campus (tutors, learning assistance programs, remedial courses, study skills seminars, and other institutional support), and more reminders that failure to maintain a certain enrollment level imperils the financial future.

And in the end, students pay more as faculty labor is squeezed harder. Rinse and repeat.

The Easy A Out

When grades are inflated, everyone appears to win. Students are happy for obvious reasons. Administrators are happy that students are staying enrolled. Teachers are happy their already hefty workloads aren’t being increased further. Yet the collective outcome — contra econ 101 — is suboptimal.

As the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded rises, employers can demand additional credentials (which universities are only too happy to offer at eye-watering prices). The only ones who benefit are those who can afford to distinguish themselves from the pack of three-point-something GPAs by buying costly elite credentials.

American meritocracy was always an illusion. But if it’s fading now in academia, the culprit is not affirmative action or “cultural Marxism,” as the Right would have it. It’s the commodification of education.