The scandal at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is principally about academic dishonesty. But it highlights an institutional failure at almost all American colleges that dissuades students from pursuing the best career possible. Some academic departments systematically inflate students’ grades. And many of those departments give students the least rigorous preparation for the labor market.
Part of college is learning what you’re good at. Students use freshman-year courses to gauge their interest and aptitude in different majors. A student who receives an A in writing and a B in calculus might conclude that she’s a better writer than mathematician. But what if she actually earned the average grade in both courses?
Plenty of students who start in difficult fields such as math decide to scale back their ambitions. That’s fine if it’s a personal choice–but not if they’re doing so because they got deceptive messages from their graders.
Women appear to be more sensitive to these grading messages than men. When Wellesley, an elite college for women, instituted a sensible grading system across all majors, the number of students majoring in the previously “easy” disciplines declined by 30%! Colleges that refuse to tackle grade inflation bear some responsibility for the fact that women, on average, end up in lower-paying fields.
Colleges will always have borderline students who hunt for the classes most likely to pass them and keep them enrolled. Educational institutions have a responsibility to ensure that the classes students are most likely to pass are the ones where they have a comparative advantage–not the ones where the faculty is most permissive.
Originally appeared on WSJ.com.