“Honest” transcript bill won’t stop grade inflation at UT

On Jan 10, state Rep. Scott Turner, R-Frisco, announced via Twitter that he would challenge Rep. Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, for the position of Speaker of the House, which the latter has held since 2009. To most students on the UT campus, this out-of-left-field political candidate may not warrant a second look. But his out-of-left-field policy issue of choice — grade inflation — should. 

At a Texas Public Policy Foundation panel held in early December, Turner confirmed that he plans to renew his fight to curb grade inflation at Texas universities, a cause he first took up in the 2013 legislative session. Then, Turner filed what has become known as the “Honest Transcript” bill, a bill he will likely reintroduce when lawmakers reconvene next January. The bill — which passed the House before stalling in the Senate Committee on Higher Education — would require transcripts from all public universities in Texas to include a course’s average grade along with the grade that an individual student earned in that course, so potential employers could easily judge where an “A” fell on the course’s bell curve. 

At first glance, grade inflation — or the idea that average grades have been increasing even though students aren’t spending more time studying — seems like an odd problem for a politician to take up. But Turner’s supporters say that grade inflation places a burden on employers who have to evaluate and hire recent college graduates. If average grades rise to the point where employers can no longer cut through a stack of resumes solely based on GPA, those employers will have to expend more time and resources to distinguish applicants. Second, supporters of the bill argue that grade inflation leads to an under-educated and ill-prepared workforce, eventually devaluing the worth of a college education. As average grades rise, students study less, which in turn means that they will gain less from their experiences in class. The end result? Students who are less prepared to enter the workforce than in years past, when good grades meant hard work and signaled intellectual progress.

One thing is for sure: Average grades around the nation have skyrocketed in recent decades. According to a landmark grade inflation study by Stuart Rojstaczer and Christopher Healy, A’s only amounted to 15 percent of all grades awarded in the early 1960s. Today, 43 percent of all grades awarded are A’s, and a staggering 73 percent are either A’s or B’s. A study by Philip Babcock and Mindy Marks also showed that students are studying less: In 1961, 67 percent of students reported studying more than 20 hours per week. In 1981, that percentage fell to 44 percent, and today, only 20 percent of students do.

It is clear, then, that the fundamental claims about grade inflation are true: Professors are awarding more A’s, average grades are going up and students appear to be studying less. But is there more to this issue?

To effectively combat grade inflation, someone or something needs to put pressure on professors to correct the grade distributions in their courses. Unfortunately, the major players — students and their professors — instead have an incentive not to change. Namely, most students stand to benefit from rising average grades, and would have no reason to advocate for a solution. And professors, who rely on student evaluations for tenure, career advancement and financial incentives, would also not want to risk angering students with a harsh grading curve.

Ultimately, there are two groups who stand to gain something from curbing grade inflation that could serve as the impetus for change: The students who are making “true” A’s who would continue to excel even within a normal grade distribution — an exceedingly small group — and employers, who have a price to pay as average GPAs rise and they are forced to find alternative ways to distinguish applicants. Pressure on the academic community to curb grade inflation would therefore have to come from the employers who need traditional grade distributions to make hiring decisions; they are the only ones who have anything to gain.

Unfortunately, Turner’s bill has nothing to do with the relationship between employers and universities, and it does nothing to force any substantive change in the classroom. Its impact would pale in comparison to, say, a major employer like Dell telling UT that it doesn’t want to recruit until grade distributions are corrected.

Turner, however, likely knows that this is the case. Considering his ambitions of unseating current Speaker Joe Straus, it’s hard to see Turner’s anti-grade inflation crusade as anything but political grandstanding — an attempt to resonate with conservative higher education reformers and their “college today doesn’t teach kids anything” talking point. 

The far-right conservative movement in which Turner has quickly become a rising star has made a nasty habit of sticking hard to that line of argument, particularly when it comes to higher education. But it’s obvious that this bill just doesn’t have the teeth to produce any substantive change in the classroom. To curb grade inflation, a bill would need to do more than simply mandate more complicated student transcripts. While transparency measures like this may sometimes be effective, the solution to this problem needs to come from the one group that has both an incentive to change and the money to lobby for it: Employers. As is, Turner’s anti-grade inflation initiative would do very little to help Texas college students.