HUFFINGTON POST: Grade Inflation, Academic Rigor, and College Graduation Rates

Career College Central Summary:

  • For some time now, college graduation rates have played an important role in the ranking formulas used by U.S. News, Forbes and other ranking organizations. The college rating system under development by the Obama administration would also place a high value on higher graduation rates. While some have tried to calibrate these rates against the quality of students enrolled as measured by test scores and high school GPA's, all of them treat a higher graduation rate as being an indicator of higher institutional quality, with the highest ranked colleges and universities in this category having graduation rates of over 95 percent.
  • One result of this practice has been the increasing interest shown by potential students and their parents in an institution's graduation rate, with some asking for what amounts to almost a guarantee that they or their child will graduate if they enroll.
  • Now when I was an undergraduate at a selective private engineering school in the '60s, the graduation rate of those who enrolled as freshmen was only a bit above 50 percent, and the average campus GPA was only slightly above a 2.0 (the required GPA for graduation). It would probably be overstating the case to say that this was a source of pride for the campus, but there was never any question about those who graduated being capable engineers. In fact, companies lined up to hire these graduates, including those with GPA's only slightly above the 2.0 minimum. Some of the students that I knew who didn't make the grade subsequently enrolled in other, less academically rigorous, institutions from which they later graduated, although their employment prospects were less promising…
  • For all colleges and universities, in fact, the relationship between graduation rates, academic rigor and the subsequent success of graduates is a complex one. And it should be obvious to the reader, therefore, that the inclusion of graduation rates in College ranking formulas has at least the potential to encourage grade inflation and lower academic standards. In fact, a reasonable strategy for a university trying to move up in the rankings would be to try to graduate 100 percent of those who enroll. And sadly, at many of our colleges and universities, the most common grade given today is an A.
  • I am deeply troubled by this misuse of graduation rates as an indicator of academic quality when in fact they could indicate, in some cases, exactly the opposite. The notion that a graduation rate near 100 percent is a sign of academic quality is simply nonsense. At RIT, 30 percent of our undergraduates receive Pell Grants and another 25 percent are the first from their family to attend college, and studies have shown that these students, while capable, are statistically more at-risk for college completion. Students drop out before graduation for many reasons. These include failure to meet our academic standards, personal health issues, financial problems, social problems, and family emergencies beyond their control.

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