Michael Pearce writes for the Martin Center about two major problems for American universities.

The need for change in the visual arts may offer a way to fix two of the many fundamental problems afflicting American liberal arts education in general. These are the related problems of grade inflation and providing students with degrees that may lead to a good career.

Over the last decade, the number of Americans with a bachelor’s degree or higher has increased from 31 percent to 39 percent. The problem is that college is getting easier, not that our students are getting smarter. “GPAs have been rising due to relaxed standards. These relaxed standards account for much of the increase in college graduation rates,” Jeffrey T. Denning of Brigham Young University writes in an NBER working paper on college completion rates. “We find that student characteristics, institutional resources, and institution attended explain little of the change in graduation rates.”

The increase in the number of students graduating is due to grade inflation, and the pandemic has made matters worse.

A Cengage-funded survey by Bay View Analytics of 1,486 students and 1,286 faculty and administrators from 856 institutions found that 47 percent of the professors it contacted had lower expectations of the amount of work students would do, and 46 percent dropped assignments. Though 32 percent of them had lower expectations of the quality of student work, community college professors were less likely than professors at four-year colleges to reduce their expectations.

Among the unfortunate consequences of these “relaxed standards” is that employers can no longer trust a college degree to indicate the quality of a job applicant. Grading at liberal arts colleges is especially open to these “relaxed standards,” thanks to criticisms that grading the arts is entirely subjective.

But when people say this, they usually mean that the arts can only be judged according to personal criteria, and that one person’s taste is of equal value to another’s. This egalitarian idea may be attractive, but it is based on the faulty notion that all people begin their judgment from the same starting point. They do not.