ot long ago it was midterm season at American colleges and I found myself under a pile of exams to correct. This brought to mind what’s advertised as a serious problem in higher education, namely grade inflation.
I don’t really believe in grades, certainly not as objective measures that carry physical weight. At the same time, most universities view them as critical to academic life.
In this context, students care deeply about grades. The key word is always context. Take economics. Yes, salaries have gone up over the last 50 years, but what you can buy with those salaries has diminished drastically.
Similarly, when I was a student in the 1960s, getting into a top college was far less arduous than it is today. If you did well in high school, had reasonable test scores, good recommendations, and performed well in interviews, you had a reasonable chance of getting into a prestigious university. Indeed, if one of those factors was less than brilliant, but the others were excellent, you still stood a fighting chance.
These days, good grades are not enough. You need exceedingly good ones.
I was horror-stricken the first time I had a student who lost her composure when she received an A- on a midterm. She was desperate and asked me if there were any way she could bring up the grade. She absolutely could not afford anything less than an A, she told me. I thought, based on the context of my schooling, that an A- was a very good grade. Not so any more.
High school and college students not only need to have superlative grades; they must also spend much of their free time involved in extra-curricular activities, once again at the highest level. In my time, teens were advised to enroll in a few activities to appear more “well-rounded,” basically a way of ensuring we didn’t spend all day in our rooms studying and had at least a few interests that went beyond the academic. Activities also helped suggest we were psychologically “well-balanced” and unlikely to fall apart in a college environment.
Today, not even this is enough. You can’t just be on the intramural basketball team or sing in the choral group. Your basketball team and choral group must be able to compete on a national level.
American parents have told me stories about giving their kids private lessons — whether to compete on the high school golf team or hone their football skills, sometimes at the expense of a piece of summer.
No activity is taken on just for fun. No weekends are free. No vacations or holidays are sacred. Everything is sacrificed to the all-encompassing goal of getting into a “good” college.
This situation is further compounded by the need for high grades and top test scores, which the “better” schools vet carefully. These academic pressures frequently call for hours of studying and sometimes additional individual or group coaching.
I hardly think this is how a well-balanced person is made. These kids lack lives of their own. They have nothing that is theirs to manage and decide. Above all, their value is increasingly dependent on performance, and their lives ever more determined by competition, judgement, and ultimately a system of classification that determines winners and losers.
The ubiquity of social networks adds yet another dimension: the requirement to appear beautiful, attractive, smiling and happy, with hands raised in a huge “Ta-da!” – a “Look at me!” that invariably fits in with the going ideal.
Put all these details together and you get a recipe for psychological disaster. Every evaluation, even positive, represents a judgment, and a warning that next time the view could be negative. There is nowhere to hide from such pressure, and nowhere to just be.
In the 1960s, six months of minimum wage salary would pay for a year at Harvard. And a good transcript with good grades, strong recommendation, reasonable test scores and an excellent essay written by the student himself (not a professional consultant), could be enough to get you in. Half-a-century later you couldn’t pay for Harvard with dozen minimum wage jobs, and in any case, you wouldn’t have much chance to get in at all.
Is “grade inflation” the problem? Hardly. The problem is on the other side: the inflation of admission requirements at the expense of destroying a student’s psychological well-being.
What used to be enough to get a student into college or graduate school (or just to snag a decent job) has become far too little. Grades, like prices, have gone up disproportionately.
In this case,the cost of the inflation is emotional. And it is paid’ for largely by students who end up surrendering their emotional health.