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How High Tuition Costs Lead Students To Believe They Deserve A's

Having been born in 1980 and teaching college writing classes for the past eight years, I have been in the interesting position of "schooling" Millennials just a bit younger than myself.

One of the most common questions we professors hear is, “I couldn’t make it to the last class. Did I miss anything important?”

This question rankles us to no end, and I know of numerous colleagues who briskly respond with the same sarcastic retort:

"No, not at all, Johnny Laxreasoning. After about five minutes of class, we noticed your absence — so glaring and woeful to us all – and we decided to reconvene at a time better suited to your schedule. "We figured it was a thoughtless move on the part of the department chair to schedule class during a period you registered as being available for, and so we chose not to cover anything important whatsoever. Except for a tribute to your absence. Stacy read that aloud to the class. "It was touching. You should have heard it. I’ll be sure to get you a transcript."

Okay, not every colleague answers in this precise fashion, but I’ve certainly heard various adaptations of this reply.

Don’t get me wrong; I don’t believe every student who asks this question truly believes not a single important concept was covered throughout an entire class period. (Although sadly, many do.) The question, however, is indicative of a cultural shift in students' perspectives of their own educational experiences.

College is now, in large measure, considered a series of transactional encounters between students and teachers, and I don’t mean that in terms of transactions of knowledge. Rather, I mean it in the very economical sense.

In quick summary: Students pay a metric sh*t ton for their educations, and they expect to be rewarded accordingly for that metric sh*t ton. (Emphasis on the word rewarded.)

The consequence of this exchange is student entitlement.

And there is a lot of it.

Countless articles have been written about rampant grade inflation. As data reprinted in The New York Times reveals, an A is now the default assigned grade at campuses across the nation.

Half a century ago, earning an A in college was a relatively rare and noteworthy event. An A indicated academic excellence.

It was a 10 percent leap over the next letter grade down (the B), which indicated good, solid work. A "C" grade implied a student produced average work with perhaps an average amount of effort.

As the article points out, researchers have suggested this inflation trend skyrocketed during the Vietnam War, when concerned professors hoped to save failing students from being drafted into the drawn-out conflict. However, when the war ended, grade inflation not only stuck around, but in many cases, it escalated.

When I was hired at California State University, Long Beach, the chair of the department instructed me to remind my own students that A grades were reserved solely for those who demonstrated academic excellence.

To do otherwise unfairly rewarded those who put in a fraction of the effort with the same grade as those students who "went the extra mile," so to speak.

The department chair instructed me to inform students who earned Bs that they should, by no means, be ashamed of their good grade. And students who earned Cs were advised that if they wished to earn higher grades in the future, they should complete more than just average work.

Still, at the end of every semester, I receive emails from students challenging their B grades. This is the most common argument I hear:

"But I turned in all of the work. I don’t understand why you didn’t give me an A."

In our transactional educational experience (where tuition rises faster than a pitched tent), an A grade has, in the eyes of many students, been paid for in advance.

It matters not whether a student spends long hours in the library or merely plays "Plants vs. Zombies" on his or her phone in the back of a classroom. The end grade, in the eyes of many, should be identical.

I want to add a caveat here. I have taught writing courses at three tiers of California colleges, and I am well aware there are many students who sincerely struggle to achieve even a moderate command of written English.

Their challenges stem in large part from failed public education policies at the K-12 levels, as well as language barriers that arise from being non-native English speakers.

However, I have witnessed a handful of these same students work their asses off — repeatedly coming to office hours, seeking tutor assistance, drafting and revising — in order to ultimately arrive at (albeit not always A-level) academic success.

These students inspire me.

Similar challenges arise amongst students who perform stronger in math and science, and yet many of them work as hard as they can as well.

I am sad to report, however, that when it comes to end-of-semester complaints, these students are the statistical minority. I regularly encounter writing products born of apathy and procrastination. The culprit of this apathy? Transactional-based student entitlement.

"The A is paid for, Professor Lacy. It’s the predetermined default grade we both agreed upon when I forfeited my savings account to take your class."

I have sympathy for this argument, I really do, but it only hurts your peers who put in more effort. It even hurts you, as you move onto your next writing class unprepared, regardless of how high your GPA is.

At one point, I taught at an institution that assigned minuses and plusses at the end of letter grades. At the end of one term, a student emailed me and asked why I had given him an A-, when I could have been a bit more lenient and simply rearranged a few participation points in order to bump his grade up to a solid A.

My one-line email response?

Because I was originally going to give you a B+.