Rising Inflation by Degrees

Blog, Education, Amanda Achtman

Last week I attended the convocation of a friend of mine at a local liberal arts institution offering Bachelor of Education degrees. Their program is new: it began in September 2008, with the first class graduating only last year.

My friend graduated with a History degree, I should say right at the outset.

I was surprised to read in the program that 35/36 of the graduates in the college’s new Education program graduated with baccalaureate honours.

The convocation program contains an explanation of these honours:

Baccalaureate honours are awarded upon graduation to students with exceptional achievement in their undergraduate studies. The honour of Cum Laude is defined as with praise. Magna Cum Laude is defined as with great praise and Summa Cum Laude means with highest praise.

Cum Laude is awarded to students who achieve a cumulative grade point average (GPA) of 3.50 to 3.74 with no failed courses. Students who achieve a cumulative GPA of 3.75 to 3.89 with no failed courses receive Magna Cum Laude. Summa Cum Laude is reserved for students who achieve a cumulative GPA of 3.90 to 4.00 with no failed courses.

Thirty-five out of thirty-six of the Bachelor of Education students receiving honours means
that 97% of graduates achieved grade point averages of 3.5 or higher in this new programme.  Eight students received Cum Laude honours. Thirteen students received Magna Cum Laude honours. Fourteen students received Summa Cum Laude honours.

This class of graduates might be phenomenal. However, the statistical likelihood that all, but one are excellent in such a new programme is nearly impossible.

A 3.5 GPA used to be a B+ in most circles, so achieving this is not so great a distinction.  There is an institutional effort here to make what may be very good seem excellent. Most likely, the grades have been severely inflated to boost and maintain interest in the new program.

With the type of spread shown above, the exceptions are no longer the few distinguished scholars; the exceptions are now the rare outliers who do not achieve the honours designation. In this case, one rare one.

Saying that the Summa Cum Laude designation is “reserved” is also peculiar considering that honour students in this designation were the most numerous of all the honour categories, making up 40% of the crop.

The language should reflect the reality that Summa Cum Laude awards, at least in this specific class of graduates, seem to be the norm rather than an exception.

Grade inflation follows the same principles as monetary inflation. If the supply of high grades is inordinately and unduly increased, then the value of these grades will go down. Where such honours have traditionally served as legitimate academic currency, this currency is now running the risk of being rendered meaningless.

Students, beware of institutions, departments, programs, and professors that devalue your academic currency!