As a college professor for the last five years, I affirm Richard Vedder’s suspicion that there is a correlation between grade inflation (an indisputable trend over the last 40 years or so) and the prominent if not exclusive use of student evaluations for ranking/rating faculty. Vedder writes:
….student evaluations began to become popular during the 1960s and early 1970s as a common evaluation tool for faculty. I would also note that most of the great grade inflation in America has occurred since evaluations began, with national grade point averages probably rising from the 2.5 or 2.6 range in about 1960 to well over 3.0 today.
Vedder goes on to note that full-time college students do not work as many hours on their classes as they once did, because they can get good grades without doing so. [Update: Dawson Young astutely noted that this could also be attributable to the leveraging of various forms of Internet, CD, and DVD-learning tools, which serve as functional tutors, speeding the learning process through greater levels of interactivity with the student.]
One commenter helpfully observes that these trends could also be attributed to a democratization of college students since the 1960s and early 1970s: Prior to these years, college attendance was a blessing largely reserved for those with greater economic means, young adults who (in the main) did not have to work side jobs to pay the bills while they earned their degrees. With a much higher percentage of society attending college today, it is not surprising that more college students need part-time income to pay the bills. Clearly, if a 20 year old has to work 20-25 hours while taking 16 semester credits, they’ll automatically have less time for study. That probably has something to do with the fact that:
“in 1961, the average student spent 40 hours a week engaged in their studies—attending class and studying. By 2003, this had declined by nearly one-third to 27 hours weekly.”
But it does not logically follow that 27 hours/week of work in 2003 should earn the same (or higher) grades as 40 hours/week in 1961. Nor does this observation explain grade inflation at elite private institutions that still attract primarily well-off students.
Read the whole thing, and (if you are interested), the article Vedder cites.
Disclaimers: It is possible to be a rigorous professor and get good student evaluations. Likewise, just because a professor has bad evaluations doesn’t mean that he or she is rigorous. They may simply be poor, unengaging communicators. While tuition-driven institutions cannot practically ($$) afford to have teachers with terrible student evaluations, they can develop incentives to reward and encourage rigor in the classroom.