Following up on a number of high-profile newspaper pieces on the relative decline of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) students in U.S. universities, Timothy Taylor explains that grade inflation might have a lot to do with the mass migration to the humanities and other “soft” subjects. Basically, students like good grades, and STEM departments have driven many students away with low average grades. Taylor looks through the academic research on the subject, and digs up an estimate that “if the English department adopted the Math grade distribution, there would be a decline of 47 percent in the number of students taking one or more courses beyond the introductory course in English.”
Why has grade inflation affected the STEM subjects less than the arts and letters? Taylor provides a few reasons, relating to the role that grades play in shaping the undergraduate population to the school’s needs:
We took another swing at the issue of grades and course choice with a couple of articles in our Summer 2009 issue. Alexandra C. Achen and Paul N. Courant asked “What Are Grades Made Of?” They argue: “Grades are an element of an intra-university economy that determines, among other things, enrollments and the sizes of departments. … Departments generally would prefer small classes populated by excellent and highly motivated students. The dean, meanwhile, would like to see departments supply some target quantity of credit hours-the more the better, other things equal-and will penalize departments that don’t do enough teaching. In this framework, grades are one mechanism that departments can use to influence the number of students who will take a given class.”
In short, grade inflation in the humanities has been contributing to college students moving away from science, technology, engineering, and math fields, as well as economics, for the last half century. It’s time for the pendulum to start swinging back. A gentle starting point would be to making the distribution of grades by institution and by academic department (or for small departments, perhaps grouping a few departments together) publicly available, and perhaps even to add this information to student transcripts.