Graduation Rates vs. Grade Inflation

Lots of states are worried about low graduation rates at public colleges. Because state colleges receive funding based on enrollment numbers, there’s not much incentive, so the thinking goes, for colleges to really educate students. Colleges don’t get any more money if more students graduate; they don’t get any less if students don’t actually finish college.

At the same time, many pundits are worried about grade inflation, the increase in the average college student’s grades over time. Many higher education thinkers believe this indicates a decline in standards.

The trouble is that in an effort to address the first problem, states might actually be facilitating the second problem.

Texas has a bill to address the state’s graduation rate. Regrettably, according to an editorial in the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, the state has done the new rule badly; there’s no incentive for colleges to actually improve:

House Bill 9… approved 118-22 Friday by the House, would modify higher education funding to reward high graduation rates and other yet-to-be-determined desirable outcomes. HB 9 is described as bipartisan….If only HB 9 were as good as both its intentions and its apparent chances of becoming law. With Gov. Rick Perry and the Higher Education Coordinating Board in favor of it, only the Senate stands in the way.

We urge that the Senate reject this bill, which we would have named the Grade Inflation and Excellence Reduction Act of 2011 because that’s what will happen if it becomes law.

We’re surprised that 118 House members would overlook the obvious. If they give colleges and universities a monetary incentive to inflate grades and make courses easier, grades will inflate and courses will become easier.

The Corpus Christi newspaper isn’t the first institution to raise this particular concern. Part of this problem might be addressed by the other “desirable outcomes.” How about something like common high standards?

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer