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Apparently, I’m turning into an education blogger. If it’s not your cup of tea, bear with me. I’m sure something else will catch my attention soon.

When I read the headline “Public high school grads struggle at college,” I was concerned. It’s always possible—and indeed likely—that there could be a public school vs. private school divide in terms of quality, because private schools have so many more resources and so do the students who attend them.

But as I read the article, it turned out that it discussed the ways public high school graduates struggle in college only to the extent that the Tribune was reporting on its own analysis of “data available to Illinois citizens,” produced in accordance with a mandate from the state legislature, that measured college vs. high school grades.

Less interested already, I nevertheless pressed on through the article. And, lo and behold, what did they discover? Student grades go down in college: “The average freshman GPA was 2.52 across all state universities and community colleges, roughly C+ work, based on the state’s tracking of more than 90,000 public high school students who graduated between 2006 and 2008. In high school, those same kids exceeded a B average — 3.08.”

The article suggested that this “for the first time raises fundamental questions about how well the state’s public high schools are preparing their students for college.”

They even tried to find an explanation: “College and K-12 officials blame the performance declines on myriad factors, from inadequate high school preparation to high school grade inflation, newfound independence and increased partying away from home.”

They argued that “there is a real lack of alignment (between high school and college)” and “kids aren’t necessarily ready for freshman-level classes.”


Let me get this straight. Getting B and C grades in college means that high schools aren’t doing their job? I don’t dispute that probably many high schools aren’t doing a great job, but is this really the measure of a problem? Or alternately, B’s and C’s result from independence and partying and high school grade inflation?

All of that is ridiculous. Of course there’s a “lack of alignment between high school and college.” College is harder. Your grades should go down. Or, if they don’t, you should have to work a lot harder to keep them at the same level as previously.

Farther down in the article, there was a comment from “Gery Chico, chairman of the Illinois State Board of Education,” who “said that a C+ average as a freshman ‘is not a horrible thing,’ pointing out that college-level work is more complicated than high school courses, and college instructors have a tougher grading system.”

And I was like, “Great, a voice of reason!” But then, he went on to say that “as students adjust to college, they can improve their GPAs.”

Are you fucking kidding me?

Okay, I get that with the job market being as tight as it is, the GPAs that college grads have earned are coming to matter to employers increasingly much. So, students want to do as well as possible. I understand this. But I have to ask: What the hell happened to C as average?

And here I thought it was just my students—unfortunately many of whom fit the “overprivileged kid from the Chicago-suburbs” stereotype—who thought they should all get A’s just for trying.

And, interestingly, my campus is, in fact, singled out: “Among the four-year state universities, only at the state’s flagship campus, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, did these freshmen average at least a B, with a 3.14 GPA for freshmen coming out of Illinois public high schools. Those U. of I. students had an average high school GPA of 3.7.”

This is not so shocking, when you consider that the flagship is going to have the highest admissions standards.Those students are already exceptionally good at school, so they cope better when school gets harder.

Though, of course, this better result could also be because the kids who are in a position to get in to this institution are more likely to be pushy about their grades (the Overprivileged Kid Theory). Or, it could be that there’s grade inflation at UIUC because we all (me included) assume that we’re teaching high-quality students, whether that’s true or not (the Flagship Fallacy).

But here’s the thing that worries me the most about this whole conversation about grades. A provost at Northern Illinois University, one of the state schools, said “It costs a lot to go to college now, and people want to know …’What am I getting for my dollar?'”

I’ll tell you what you sure as hell don’t “get for your dollar”: you don’t get to buy your grades. Maybe at for-profit institutions, but honest-to-deity colleges are not fee-for-service places. What you get for your dollar isn’t your GPA but the content in the classes, the stretching of your brain to think critically that will serve you for the rest of your life.

The idea that we somehow owe students a certain grade for their (parent’s or lender’s) dollar is worse even than the professionalization of undergraduate degrees that I complained about a couple of weeks ago.

Now, this isn’t to say that there aren’t some actual causes for concern in the article. The Tribune points out that “BolingbrookHigh School graduates had an average 2.44 at theUniversity of Illinois, while those from Glenbrook South High School earned a 3.43 — even though college-bound students from both schools had similar average high school GPAs.” That’s worth commenting on, because it points to disparities in the preparation at those two institutions.

Similarly, when the chancellor at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale says that “more and more students seem to be less prepared for college; particularly math and English skills are not where we would like them to be when they come to college,” then we can get worried. It’s if they come in and can’t do the work, rather than if they come in and find it harder than they did before, that determines “struggling” in college, not what grades they get but “Can they hack it?”

Not some misguided sense that one’s GPA should stay the same even as the difficulty increases.

One Comment

  1. If you would like to have a conversation about the course and its level of difficulty, we can do that, but if you just want to put up a vague and anonymous complaint, it's getting deleted.

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