Editor's note: This story, much of which appears in Sunday's News-Gazette, was reported and written by University of Illinois journalism graduate students Pramod Acharya, Ramiro Ferrando and Logan Hanson and journalism senior Chantal Vaca, with copy-editing assistance from journalism senior Emily Ward. Their full report, including multimedia elements and a section on how much top grades matter come job search time, is available online at ontheline.web.illinois.edu.
It's finals week at the University of Illinois. Students nose-deep in textbooks cram into every available space of campus libraries, including the Undergraduate Library, where three juniors huddle around a table plastered with notes and papers, each looking intently at laptop screens.
Nini Sulaiman, Carmen Carteno and Adrian Hernandez have been there for many hours, and it will be many more before they leave.
Sulaiman, a psychology and kinesiology major, is fresh off of an all-nighter and plans to do another tonight.
Hernandez, a chemistry major with a final coming in two days, plans two of his own back-to-back.
All three care about grades. And all three have 3.2 GPAs.
Little do they know — all-nighters or not — that well more than half of all course grades given at the UI last year were A's, and the percentage has been rising for more than a decade.
In 2018, a total of 58 percent of UI course grades were A-minus, A or A-plus, according to data obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. Thirteen years ago, only 45 percent of course grades were in the A range.
"Not surprised," was the reaction of Kevin Pitts, vice provost for undergraduate education.
Grade inflation — higher grades for work that formerly would not have merited them — has impacted campuses nationwide, according to research done by former Duke University Professor Stuart Rojstaczer and collected on his website, gradeinflation.com.
"Do we have it? Probably we do," Pitts said.
Pitts contends that grade inflation is a complex issue that is not easy to assess, but a four-month analysis of more than 13 years of UI grading data uncovered two main factors associated with higher grades: big classes and online courses.
In 2018, 72.3 percent of grades in online courses at the UI were A's. This compares to only 54.4 percent of grades in all other course types.
When proposing permanent adoption of its online-only winter term in 2015, UI officials produced a report finding no statistically significant difference between grading in online courses and the same courses taught face to face. However, they noted that the courses selected tended to be large, popular ones — courses that already tended to have higher grades.
Online or face-to-face, according to the data, the percentage of A's awarded increases almost steadily with class size, particularly with classes of 350 or more students and especially in introductory, 100-level courses.
"I'm not surprised that the fraction of A's in larger courses tend to be higher, because the larger courses tend to be at the 100 level, introductory courses," Pitts said.
In 2005, the average GPA for all courses at the UI was 3.21. By 2018, it had risen to 3.38.
Grade inflation isn't limited to the UI.
At the University of North Texas, researchers examined data from universities throughout the country and found "inflation may result from national or regional trends in competition for students and public funding formulas."
They warned that their university might find it counterproductive to actively discourage grade inflation. Among the ways universities increase profitability, they concluded, is by making classes bigger and looking for new sources of revenue, with online courses appearing as one of the most profitable alternatives.
Whether courses become large because they are "easy" or become "easy" because they are large is unknown. What's clear from social media sites such as Reddit and Facebook and study-aid sites such as Quizlet is that larger courses increase chances for students to find resources online, such as past quizzes, test answers, homework and other materials. They also may offer fewer controls to prevent those resources from being used.
Online and large courses also are among the most profitable for universities.
Although online courses represent a minority of all UI courses, their share of overall courses has doubled in less than a decade, rising to 5.6 percent in 2017-18, according to data obtained from the university's Division of Management Information.
"If you've got a thousand people who need to take microeconomics this semester, what's the most cost-effective way to do it?" Pitts said. "Put them in Foellinger and in a room that can hold them all and teach them all at once."
And when a course is big enough for Foellinger, it becomes a strong candidate for conversion to online.
Almost five decades ago, when John Toenjes graduated from Stanford, his annual cost of education was around $6,000. At a public university, it might have been only $2,000, the equivalent of $12,500 in current dollars.
Now, he is an associate professor of dance at the UI and teaches students who pay between $30,000 and $60,000 per year.
"Anyone could afford to go to school to get an education for the sake of getting an education. It's not like that anymore," Toenjes said. "Everything's all (messed) up."
As the UI grapples with state budget cuts, students have become its primary source of revenue. Between 2007 and 2017, adjusting for inflation, revenue from tuition and fees increased 65 percent as the university recuperated from wounds inflicted by a nationwide trend toward reduced state support and aggravated by a state budget crisis in 2016. State funding decreased by 45.7 percent.
Although new, self-supporting graduate programs have been introduced, undergraduates have borne the brunt of state cuts. The cost of teaching undergraduate courses increased 26 percent from 2009-10 to 2017-18, but undergraduate tuition rose by a much larger 39 percent, according to the Division of Management Information.
According to Pitts, raising tuition was a "balancing act," as the UI was not bringing in "enough" revenue through other sources.
"When there's an imbalance, that imbalance is going to correct itself one way or another," he said.
In response to university incentives for teaching more students at lower costs, several departments developed large online courses to attract more undergrads. Members of the university's Council for Learning Outcomes Assessment were aware of this.
"It's getting to be almost like a sweatshop — make an online course so you can have more and more students," said Toenjes, a council member. "It's definitely a kind of an economic tool."
Michel Bellini, director of the UI's Center for Innovation in Teaching in and Learning, disagrees.
"I don't think that online education was the answer to a lack of budget," Bellini said.
But even Bellini's assistant director, Jason Mock, concedes budget problems played a role in growth of online education.
"The budget crunch a few years ago caused many departments and colleges to look for new sources for revenues, and one of the sources was online education," Mock said.
Online courses and programs also help the university target international students, who pay much higher tuition.
"We can reach students all across the world — without requiring them to come to the middle of a cornfield in central Illinois — through online education," Mock said.
In online courses, the total number of credit hours taught — so-called instructional units, or IUs — quadrupled between 2009 and 2018, according to DMI data.
Discussions about online education and the potential of revenue generation appear repeatedly in minutes of the University Senate's Education Policy Committee and the administration's Council of Deans.
During winter and summer terms, when many online courses are taught, nearly all tuition revenue goes directly to colleges teaching the courses. This provides further incentive for departments to take more classes online and thereby to encourage students to take UI courses instead of community college courses over break.
According to an analysis of tuition rates and budgetary principles and practices, normally referred to as Communication No. 1 from the office of the Provost, UI colleges get at least $344, and sometimes substantially more, for each credit hour taught in summer term. In regular fall and spring terms, that amount is $110.
In regular semesters, UI central administration takes a large portion of tuition money, sometimes as much as 25 percent, for overall expenses. The rest is divided and distributed based on each college's relative percentage of campus majors and each college's relative percentage of credit hours taught.
In summer, the administration takes only 5 percent off the top, and all remaining tuition money is sent directly to the colleges teaching the courses.
The same course taught to the same number of students in fall or spring could generate three times as much revenue, or perhaps even more, if taught in winter or summer.
Generating instructional units, or IUs, is crucial for colleges.
"We have to keep students; otherwise they will shut us down. We get funding based upon IUs, so we have to keep IUs," Toenjes said.
But Pitts disagrees, noting: "The amount of money that comes with instructional units is not enormous."
Indeed, a typical faculty member teaching 50 students a semester in a three-hour class might generate only $16,500 in IUs for his or her college. But the same faculty member, moving the course to winter or summer term, done online, could generate at least $51,585 and perhaps as much as $184,538 if teaching to high-tuition students like international students in engineering.
"There is an incentive," Pitts admitted. "It is not a huge incentive, but incentives are incentives."
Three years ago, Cecilia Weislow, a resident of Milestone Township in New Jersey, came to Urbana-Champaign to study animal science. Before she came, she had a clear career goal and wanted to be focused on her major. She never thought of taking general education courses, known as gen-eds, but had no option because they are requirements for all undergrads.
"I am currently managing payments with a mixture of loans and help from my parents," Weislow said. "Sometimes I think about how you are paying money to take this course that isn't necessarily what you need."
Duke University grade-inflation researcher Stuart Rojstaczer finds that students increasingly see education as a consumer good, with them as the consumers. They appear ready to pay but want a diploma with good grades, focused on their career goals.
Some students seek "easy" classes to fulfill requirements that are not part of their majors.
Johann Neem, department chair and professor of history at Western Washington University, worries that consumer-driven education might be driving students away from the true purpose of colleges.
"At the heart of education are human beings interacting with each other," Neem said. "That's the way people feel confident taking risks with ideas. ... It's the way ideas get developed and refined."
The push for greater efficiency — both for students and universities — may work against this by creating larger, sometimes less personal classes, especially in areas not directly impacting students' career ambitions.
"I do see that students have expectations as consumers. You can see things like Rate My Professor. It's kind of like a Yelp or Amazon reviews," Toenjes said. "This idea of corporatizing education is something that we faculty grumble about a lot. You have to get corporate funding; you have to compete in the online space because otherwise other universities will outpace you and you won't get the funding other universities will get."
Students' power as consumers also is related to universities' reliance on student evaluations of instructors.
"Most faculty members are evaluated on a regular basis by their students," said Maureen McMahon of the University at Albany. "Teachers who fail several students each semester gain a reputation for being ineffective and tend to be replaced."
At the UI, students' evaluation of instructors is measured primarily by surveys administered at the end of each course. Results of every survey are included in dossiers prepared whenever a faculty member is up for promotion or tenure. Faculty members are reluctant to comment on the record about such matters.
"Most professors I speak with say that the consumer orientation of higher education has caused this," one UI faculty member said under the condition of anonymity. "Students pay professors to provide what they want to have provided, and if they don't get it, complain and give poor teacher evaluations, post negative reviews on Internet sites, etc. So, one way instructors deal with this is to give an easy A, if they are inclined to do so."
Other theories have emerged as to why large and online courses tend to generate higher grades.
"I really put it on the instructors," said Thomas Kuipers, an iSchool student and member of the University Senate Educational Policy Committee. "I think they grade more leniently online because they understand the experience is different. I am not sure they are willing to admit that it is different, but I certainly feel that somewhere deep down that is what is going on."
Still, others question the role economics and marketing play.
"I think we tend to give them sometimes better grades than we think they might deserve in an effort to keep student population, keep our economic base strong," Toenjes said.
"Sometimes online classes are so easy that I don't put a lot of work into them," said Casey Van Duyne, a junior who took CHLH 243: Drug Use and Abuse online. "In the end, you're not really learning much because you have so much access to the internet while you're taking an exam."
While experts agree that online courses can be designed to ensure educational quality, not all courses appear to be designed that way, and the UI admits it has no central structure to ensure quality. According to Pitts, decisions on whether a course is sufficiently rigorous are left to the very same departments that have financial incentives for making courses bigger or moving them online.
However, online isn't the problem, experts say.
"If not supported and designed for students, it will be just as ineffective as a poorly designed face-to-face course," said Natasha Jankowski, director of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment located in the College of Education at the UI.
While course designers insist newly created online courses at UI are properly designed and supported, key members of faculty governance are not fully convinced.
"The risk is that you are designing it because you want something that is inexpensive but brings in a lot of students, and that means that you are very likely to cut corners and the quality of the course will suffer," said Bettina Francis, chair of the UI Senate Executive Committee and an associate professor in entomology.
In the end, it isn't the medium, but the methods.
"To achieve gains in student outcomes, we must do more than just deliver the course through a different medium," said Thomas L. Russel, director emeritus of the Office of Instructional Telecommunications at N.C. State.
Online can be effective if content is adequately adapted, Russel's research concludes. Jankowski agrees.
"You need to really craft what is this online course experience, how do we support, what does feedback look like online, how you have interaction between your learners in an online environment," she said. "Well, it's incredibly doable, and it works just fine."
Ten years ago, according to Mock, online classes allowed students to submit all of their work on the last day of class and receive credit. Today's online courses are structured to be more like face-to-face courses, with assignments due during the week.
Although deadlines have been designed to mimic those of a face-to-face course, many other face-to-face features, such as synchronous learning environments and proctoring of quizzes and exams, are not present in all online courses at UI.
For students like Van Duyne, synchronous learning would have helped.
"When I'm required to meet with my group, I actually feel like I have a lot to do and prove in the class opposed to meeting online," Van Duyne said.
Undergraduates also find it relatively easy to cheat on online quizzes and exams, whether offered in online courses or in face-to-face courses that feature online testing.
According to Mock, UI offers a proctoring service called ProctorU, which requires students to use their computers' web cameras to show that others are not in the room and that no notes are used when they take tests.Advanced courses such as ECON 302: Intermediate Microeconomic Theory require students to take exams through ProctorU, which charges students from $8.75 to $30.25, depending on the amount of time for which proctoring is needed, according to a UI webpage.
Not all courses with online testing require students to take exams through ProctorU, however.
Without proctoring, students can ease the burden of course work by using resources such as web searches to figure out answers on tests.
"They have Quizlet answers that we can access and get the answers for these quizzes," Van Duyne said.
Many students actively search for "easy" courses. "Easy Classes at U of I !!!!" is a Facebook group with nearly 16,000 members. Students write posts asking each other about "easy" courses offered at UI.
Easy gen-ed courses are most often sought. Although not all easy gen-ed courses are taught online or in large lecture halls, some (like ECON 102: Microeconomic Principles) are taught in Foellinger Auditorium, which has more than 1,000 seats.
Freshman Karley Crady is taking the course. Although taught face-to-face, all testing is done online, and the final exam is optional. Crady has a 102 percent grade in the course.
"On the high-stakes (quizzes), it might say not to use the internet as, like, a help, but there's no proctoring of your computer screen or anything, so we do them in groups," Crady said. "I have four friends that are in it; we all sit down together and do the high-takes quizzes together."
Courses online or in large lecture halls can make it hard for professors to provide ideal learning environments.
"It is difficult to have a personal connection with 100 students," Francis said.
Maryalice Wu, director of data analytics at the Center for Innovation Teaching and Learning, also has concerns with large class sizes.
"When you get above (50 or 60 students), it gets harder, and it doesn't matter what the platform is. It just gets harder," Wu said.
Pitts admitted that 1,000-student classes posed challenges.
"Is that as good as 50 sections of 20 students per section?" he said. "That's a resource thing."
Large courses pose other concerns for some students, but they often dismiss these concerns because good graded tend to be easier to get.
"I find it really hard to focus," Crady said of her Foellinger Auditorium economics course. "I'm lucky enough that I don't really need to focus on this class because it is a very easy A, but I think if I was taking something harder, I think it would be a lot harder to focus with 900 kids in there."
Without active participation or discussion, either online or in person, students can passively sit in a lecture hall and browse the Internet instead of focusing on a lecture. In Crady's class, students stop only when their attention is required, such as answering a question through Top Hat, an online platform.
"You have to have your laptop out, and you can tell once a Top Hat question pops up, people move to that browser and answer the question and go back to doing whatever they were going to do because you don't get any credit for getting the right or wrong answer, so it doesn't really like affect you what you say," Crady said.
Some students don't even attend. Friends in the class simply text them a code number to enter and they answer the Top Hat question from wherever they may be.