What follows is an outline of a conversation I have had repeatedly throughout my academic career. It is a representation of no individual or institution in particular, as I have had it with people at all stages of their career and at all types of post-secondary institutions from community colleges up to major research universities.
As a preface, everybody must know that educators spend a tremendous amount of time complaining about the students. I imagine doctors and nurses complain about their patients, and that people in retail and service complain about customers. Well, I can promise you that teachers are no different. If you know any teachers, you probably know this firsthand. If not, well…your suspicions are true. We complain.
Some colleague will spend a variable amount of time – years on end, or a single conversation – complaining about some aspect of his/her students. Usually it is their complete lack of effort or their utter lack of preparation / skills necessary to succeed in a university environment. My experiences have led me to believe what they tell me without being terribly skeptical. At some point I will ask a question like, "So did you end up failing a lot of people? Was that an issue?" or "What did your grade distribution look like?" Since I do not record these conversations and keep them as evidence you will have to take my word for this part, but I'd estimate that about 75% of the time my fellow educator reports that the grades were all A or B. Maybe, if he or she is a real ball-breaker, they give grades all the way down to C.
This is not universally true. Sometimes other professors tell me they fail a lot, or they pride themselves on being a tough grader who does not simply hand out A's like candy. There are some of us out there. But take a look at the statistics on grade inflation. Not only is A the modal grade in college courses now but the average GPA at any campus in the country has increased steadily since the 1990s. Maybe the students are just getting smarter. I kid, I kid.
I don't understand how people who have a Ph.D., not to mention considerable college teaching experience, cannot put two and two together. The students are terrible, yet somehow giving them all passing grades (and in some cases B or higher) isn't making them less terrible. Shocking, isn't it? It's almost as if the students can glean information online or from the campus grapevine about which faculty members are creampuff graders and take their classes with the confidence that if they don't feel like putting in the effort necessary to get an A they can do absolutely nothing and walk out with the B. Someone should do some research to study the question of how hard people will work above and beyond what is necessary to accomplish a well-defined goal.
That leaves the question: Why? Why do some faculty do this?
We don't lack for theories. Some people believe that giving high grades buys positive teaching evaluations, while others insist that no such relationship exists. Others argue that faculty, particularly at smaller and more teaching-intensive schools, grow to like their students to the point that they will not grade them harshly. Others blame parents and administrators for emphasizing grades above learning and retention above quality, respectively. Students who fail out of school don't write tuition checks, after all.
I have a simpler theory: laziness. It's rare that I don't side with academics, for obvious reasons. But I really think this one is largely our fault. Faculty give out inflated grades because it's easier. It's easier than working hard to improve a student's performance when said student simply does not care, and it's easier than giving out D and F grades and having to deal with students complaining about their grades and trying to negotiate higher ones. That's really all there is to it. Passing the students along, as America's high schools figured out long ago, is the easiest way to avoid making their problems your own. Just give them a C so they won't take your class again, or a B so you won't have to watch them cry in your office about how dad is going to take the SUV away.
Ironically, the perception of how much work is involved with giving out real, uninflated grades is…inflated. Being a Dick Grader is not nearly as much work as most faculty seem to think. If you lay out clear expectations and let the students know up front that you're not going to tolerate negotiations and that anyone looking for a course that can be passed with no effort should look elsewhere, it turns out that you don't have to spend hours and hours at the end of the semester in pained negotiations with aggrieved students.
It is not our job to hand out an A to anyone who enrolls in the course. When we choose to do so, however, we shouldn't be surprised that the students adjust their approach to our courses accordingly. If I could get my paycheck without having to put any effort into the job you can be certain that I would. Why would the students, grade-oriented as our system has become, do any differently?