No Grade Inflation at James Madison College

Editor’s Note: Ross Emmett is a professor of political economy and political theory & constitutional democracy at James Madison College. Rachel Penn is a senior at James Madison College.

We hear a lot about the inevitability of grade inflation in the academic world. But there is no grade inflation at James Madison College (JMC), a residential liberal arts college of public affairs located within Michigan State University.

Since 2000, an average of only 10 percent of grades assigned to James Madison students during the regular academic school year have been perfect 4.0s (As). In summer, that percentage drops to 7 percent. And in no semester on record has that average ever risen above 15 percent. Lest one think this may be a Michigan State phenomenon, no other college in the university assigns As, on average, to fewer than 25 percent of the students in its courses.

So how does JMC maintain a rigorous curriculum and keep up the value of its grades? It begins with the selection of students, or should we say, the self-selection into the college by students themselves.

As a large public university, Michigan State has a rolling admissions process for incoming freshmen that begins at the start of the previous academic year. As soon as high school seniors have completed the criteria, they are admitted. Most enter as “non-preference” majors: they choose their major during their second year, and spend the first year taking courses that fulfill university-wide requirements, often in very large classes—a typical experience at many large universities.

But students enter James Madison College as freshmen, having chosen JMC while they were high school seniors. The first 300 or so students who select JMC as their college of choice on the university’s admissions form and make it through the admissions process comprise the incoming class. That means that each year, long before the fall semester is over, a group of high school seniors already know they will be attending JMC the next academic year. Few students enter JMC without knowing about its reputation.

Like students at small liberal arts colleges, JMC freshmen begin their university experience by living and learning together. Almost all of them live in the dorm that houses the college (including the offices of the dean and the faculty and their classrooms). They are immediately thrown into an intensive first-year program that includes two semesters (eight semester credits) of workshop-style writing courses. JMC students are required to do a lot of writing, and the first-year program ensures that they learn how to write well.

Class sizes of first-year course sections (and indeed most JMC classes) don’t exceed that of the average high school classroom. This encourages a high standard of participation from the outset of the students’ undergraduate education. Moreover, most courses are taught by full-time, primarily tenure-track faculty.

At the end of their first year, the students select majors from those offered by the college: international relations, political theory and constitutional democracy, social relations and policy, and comparative culture and politics. By the time they graduate, the students will have accumulated almost half of their credits in the context of the college’s curriculum, most in its own courses.

Many think JMC is an honors college because of the well-known strength and difficulty of its program, but it is not. Rather, it is a special college to which students who want to learn and be engaged in public affairs come.

JMC’s status as a college within Michigan State allows it to set its own rules for faculty by specifying tenure, promotion, and merit recognition requirements. The college’s by-laws require these decisions to be determined first and foremost by quality of teaching and only secondarily by research and service, ensuring that the primary interest of JMC faculty is in teaching and student development. Most of the college’s faculty members are active researchers, but all understand the priority placed upon high-quality teaching and the cultivation of a learning culture.

Our grading standards reflect the overall culture of James Madison. Here, students don’t simply receive a grade, they know they must work to earn it. Here, faculty don’t simply give grades, they have to demonstrate what those grades mean. Few of the entering freshmen expect a fantastic grade on their first assignment, and if any do, they’re quickly relieved of that expectation by both faculty and their peers. Most students receive a disappointing grade on their first paper, but they know they’ll receive help and encouragement for improvement. The college has succeeded in upholding its rigid set of standards internally, ignoring outside trends and the competition—colleges that appeal to students by making things easy.

Almost every paper handed back is accompanied by the professor’s extensive notes, which examine the paper’s strengths and weaknesses while explaining the assigned grade. Students are expected to use those comments to improve future assignments and to progressively improve the quality of their work. Students thus become participants in their education, rather than passive consumers. In JMC’s learning culture, less-than-perfect grades actually motivate students rather than discourage them.

Yet despite having lower GPAs on average than their regular university peers, James Madison students achieve high distinction. Although the approximately 1200 students make up just 4 percent of the total population at Michigan State, “Madisonians” make up approximately 30 percent of the university’s Phi Beta Kappa members each year and consistently maintain the highest placement rates in the university within six months of graduation. That beats even Michigan State’s business and engineering schools.

On top of that, JMC students are known for achieving numerous academic honors. The college boasts fourteen Fulbright Scholars, eleven Truman Scholars, seven Marshall Scholars, five Rhodes Scholars, five National Science Foundation fellowship winners, and one George Mitchell Fellow.

Although 4.0s are hard to come by, approximately 60 percent of Madisonians earn between 3.0s and 3.5s each semester. Those numbers, relatively low for top quality students, reflect the fact that the students who self-select into the college know what they are getting into. James Madison has the highest student retention rate of any program in the university.

The lesson: Many students still want to be engaged. Despite a culture which tells them that the more quickly and easily they “make the grade” the more successful they are, there are still students who resist. And judging from the number of James Madison students in the class of 2009 who, despite the recession, have already found placements, they are winning.

James Madison’s sound curriculum and consistent grading practices have created a reputation among graduate schools and employers, particularly throughout the Midwest. Even if JMC students have somewhat lower GPAs than students from other schools, employers and grad schools know that they can rely on them—something that can’t always be said about others, no matter how high their GPAs. Madison students know that in return for four years of disciplined study, they will be rewarded with a valuable degree that boasts of both their own prospects and the school’s reputation.