Grade Inflation: Do You Know What You Are Paying For?

A counselor, faculty member and student weigh in on whether or not courses at ARCC are “easier” than they should be.

By Jackson Yates, Staff Writer

During a faculty development day in January 2020, ARCC President Kent Hanson addressed the faculty and instructed them to consider the overall rigor of their courses.

Due to the stigma around community colleges and the education they provide, it is a common misconception that community college classes are less rigorous or difficult than those at a university. Underlying President Hanson’s request was the concern that the education being provided at ARCC might not compare to a four-year school.

With the admissions scandal that was uncovered in the beginning of 2019, a microscope has been placed on higher education. More students are critically evaluating the quality of their education, especially now that classes in the Minnesota State System have moved to an entirely online format in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Course rigor is tied into the problem of grade inflation, which is when rigor decreases so that students can earn higher grades. This problem has grown over the past few decades, as colleges have begun to rely on contingent (non-permanent) faculty members to teach the majority of their courses. Currently, about 70% of faculty across the country are contingent and the only metric for their success is the end-of-semester student evaluation survey results, which tend to be better if instructors provide an easy class and grade students generously.

Students boasting straight As at a community college may be the result of instructors offering more “grace” and helping them to overcome challenges rather than the result of easier courses or lenient grading. Image Credit: ATIS457 via Flickr

Carissa Johnson, one of the TRIO SSS advisors at ARCC Cambridge campus, said that though she doesn’t see many instances of grade inflation for the students whom she works with, classes and instructors vary in difficulty and instruction styles. How an instructor forms the curriculum of their class is at their discretion due to the faculty union and the terms of their contracts. That would account for that large range in styles and difficulty levels of courses.

“Based on talking to faculty as well as talking to students, there is a lot variety between instructors as well as departments. However, there is not a lot of difference between associates’ level and bachelors’ level.” says Johnson. In her experience, when a student has gone to community college and succeeded, they will not struggle with university-level work.

In psychology instructor Hillary Gokey’s experience as both a contingent and now a permanent instructor at Anoka-Ramsey, over time she found that she has not become an easier grader but rather a more thorough one. Gokey reflected on how grading at a community college and grading at a university are different because community colleges generally attract non-traditional, PSEO and other students who have unique and challenging circumstances.

Gokey stated that though grading may be more lenient, the rigor of the curriculum and course material does not go down. “I have termed this semester, ‘the semester of grace’. This does not mean rigor is any less. It simply means I want to be understanding of the many different needs people will face during these uncertain times. ARCC has a diverse student population, that I take into account, in a normal semester, so when COVID hit, I put this thought into overdrive. Students who already felt like they could not take on anymore could be faced with many more obligations, and other students might thrive in this environment.”

Gokey further explained that grace is key to this spring semester’s sudden switch to online learning. “I believe you can have rigor and grace. There are going to be many opinions on how online learning went this semester. We will learn from our mistakes as well as our successes. We were forced to transition quickly! I believe faculty, staff, administration and students did a phenomenal job this semester.”

Out of five students who were interviewed for this article regarding grade inflation and rigor in their classes at Anoka-Ramsey, none of them felt they had experienced grade inflation at ARCC.

Student Sam Miller said that when it comes to class difficulty, “I think it is a good and natural transition straight out of high school into ARCC. ARCC is a very good steppingstone to get into higher education.”

Miller continued, “I think that you have to be careful when talking about this kind of thing. The main focus of a college should be to improve students’ livelihoods and improve their careers in opening doors for them to be better. Essentially, aside from that part of it, grade inflation can be a problem because you may not have the training you need to go into your career.” Miller believes that at the end of the day, the thing that is the most important when it comes to the education you receive is that it prepares you and enables you to move ahead in your career and goals.