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Is a Duke Degree Worth the Paper It’s Printed On?

[ 81 ] September 21, 2012 |

It’s hardly surprising that a school full of the douchiest basketball fans in the world like Duke would also lead the nation in grade inflation. I mean, when you have worse grade inflation than Harvard, you are really saying something. Do Duke students just get an 4.0 when they write their tuition checks?

  • Hanspeter

    Isn’t Texas the worst offender according to that plot? In 20/21 years, they have inflated grades by 0.6. Duke, on the other hand, has only managed to make it 1.0 in over 45 years.

    • Could be. I’m a humanist, I can’t read data.

      And of course, we all know that an Oregon degree is most definitely not worth the paper it’s printed on.

      • I can’t quite work out the math in my head at this hour, but it seems like they’re comparably above the norm for their cohorts (which seem to be based on data availability, and shouldn’t be overinterpreted).

        • The figures suggest Texas has increased grades at over 20% of the rate of Duke. If 0.6 for 21 years is doubled you get 1.2 for 42 years vs. 1 for 45 years at Duke. At any rate it is compatible with my experience which is that all students think they deserve an A no matter how bad their work and a B+ is now considered the equivalent of an F. Trying to explain to students that a B+ is a very good grade is impossible. Now I just show them the memo from the Vice Chancellor that states that B+ is a very good grade and tell them they can take it up with him.

      • Anonymous

        And of course, we all know that an Oregon degree is most definitely not worth the paper it’s printed on.

        Don’t you get a free Oregon degree if you buy 5 pairs of Nike’s a year for 4 years?

        • It’s a public school. You get nothing for free.

          • Bill Murray

            as opposed to those free schooling paradises that are private schools

  • amok92

    I really feel that we* Duke doesn’t get enough credit in Progressive circles for naming their mascot after something Frenchie.

    * I work at Duke but since I’m only an IT loser I need to maintain an emotional distance so I can shrug off the eventual “dead girl or live boy” scandal.

  • Historiker

    What’s great about that chart is that I grew up cheering for Duke basketball (from NC, mom’s boss was an insufferable prick Tarheel fan), then went to Dartmouth and am now a grad student at Texas. That’s like the grade inflation trifecta it seems.

    • arguingwithsignposts

      Both NC and Duke are in a tie with Kansas for most insufferable basketball fans.

  • TT

    As a U.Va. man I’ve long taken to snarking that Duke is the “second-best” school in the ACC. But in light of recent events, can it be any better than what, 11th? 12th? 13th?

    • Mr. Upright

      I’m glad you recognize the superiority of UNC, but don’t sell UVa short. I would definitely rank them higher than Dook.

  • Full disclosure: I’m a Duke basketball fan.

    I’ll grant you that Duke fans are douchey (though I think that word is gendered and thus don’t like to use it). But Maryland fans have to be right up there. And at least Duke still wins things every once in a while. Maryland is a recurring NITer since the Juan Dixon days.

    • Alan Tomlinson

      How about we just say sports fans tend to be assholes? That removes the whole gender problem and as an added bonus, describes the problem more accurately.


      Alan Tomlinson

      P.S. I think playing sports is a great thing.

    • TT

      Duke fans don’t riot, I’ll give them that. Nothing like College Park going up in flames to celebrate a regular season win over the likes of Clemson or Wake. (I believe you can actually major in rioting at Maryland.)

      • MAJeff

        As an Iowa State alum, I’d note that our students don’t even need sporting events to riot. The annual spring VEISHEA celebration is enough.

    • JL

      Using the name for an unnecessary and damaging product for female-bodied people as a synonym for asshole? How is that inappropriately gendered? It’s not like you’re associating femininity with anything bad, just harmful products marketed toward women.

      • Douchey/douche/douchebag conveys basically the same thing asshole does, at least as I perceive it. The difference is that asshole isn’t particular to either sex. Whereas douchey is particular to females and is thus associating a negative attribute to females in general.

        There’s an implicit assumption in the term wherein because it’s feminine it’s inferior. That’s why the term douche is often attributed to men. It’s accusing them of being feminine and thus inferior to some superior male standard. That’s why I prefer the term asshole if we are going to stick to body parts to describe people in negative way.

        • Pseudonym

          That’s a good point about the connotations of “douche” being feminine.

          For my part, I try to remain neutral on the contentious dick/pussy/asshole question by describing people as cloacas.

  • John

    Are you making the argument that the value of a college degree is based on how hard it is to get good grades there, rather than on the prestige of the university issuing it?

    Duke has lots of money and puts out a lot of research. As such, a degree from Duke is worth a great deal to those who receive undergraduate degrees there.

    Beyond that, surely you, like me, are an alumnus of one of the greatest instances of grade inflation in the known universe – humanities/social science grad school. Does the fact that one more or less gets an A- just for doing the work in most grad school classes mean that our degrees are worthless? (I know there’s much more to getting a PhD than what grades you get in coursework. But still, academics complaining about grade inflation for undergraduates after being credentialed to teach undergraduates through a system where everyone gets all A’s still seems a bit hypocritical).

    I guess I have a hard time getting worked up about grade inflation. While grade inflation is certainly a significant issue, it’s way down the list of what’s wrong with elite universities.

    • Graduate school is a very different beast and should not even be considered as part of this discussion. We can have that discussion, but it’s a totally different thing.

      Also, the research done by faculty has almost nothing to do with the quality of undergraduates being produced.

      • Alan Tomlinson

        “Also, the research done by faculty has almost nothing to do with the quality of undergraduates being produced.”

        Precisely. Although most people seem to confuse the two(e.g. UC Berkeley, Stanford, etc.).


        Alan Tomlinson

        • Is it really true that research contributes almost nothing to the ability of faculty to turn out good graduates? Are faculty members who produce no research what so ever such as adjuncts really completely equal with those that do publish when it comes teaching? Not that there are not good adjuncts, but as a group is there no difference between studying under them and studying under people who are well published? I am having trouble accepting this. If only because I think somewhere along the line there is some trickle down from research into teaching. It is certainly easier to teach historiography and methods having had some experience doing research other than the writing of my dissertation. I think it also makes some of my content based classes easier to teach.

          • firefall

            Is it really true that research contributes almost nothing to the ability of faculty to turn out good graduates?

            It’s actually a negative correlation, at undergraduate leevl – the quantity (and to some extent quality) of research is a detriment to teaching & fostering undergraduates. Of course the prestige of research tends to attract a better class of raw talent, which may offset.

            • Bill Murray

              I think that depends considerably on the field. Research in STEM fields often does help your teaching and help the fostering of undergraduates. At least that has been my experience

            • Gus

              Agreed. I’ve taken classes from brilliant research superstars who brought in millions in grants who couldn’t teach their way out of a paper bag.

          • The research on this is quite inconclusive: there’s qualitative studies that suggest that active researchers engage students better, at higher levels; there’s quantitative research that assumes that student evaluations mean something, so it’s worthless; there’s a shitload of anecdotal/experiential evidence that active researchers are often assholes who consider students a barely necessary evil, like speedbumps.

          • djw

            Are faculty members who produce no research what so ever such as adjuncts really completely equal with those that do publish when it comes teaching?

            This seems to confuse two issues unnecessarily and counterproductively. “Faculty who are not active researchers” and “Faculty employed as adjuncts” are two different sets. They overlap, but are not identical: many adjuncts are trying to, and indeed succeeding in publishing, since doing so is necessary (but, of course, not sufficient) for getting a better job. Also, many non-adjuncts, especially among the tenured, have abandoned active research because they can. I assume you know this, so I’m not sure why you’d conflate the issue.

            As for the research contributes to good teaching, that’s certainly true in a number of cases. But there are other cases where active researchers spend less time, effort, and mental energy on teaching as a result, to the detriment of teaching quality. Combine both cases, and I expect you’d see little no relationship between teaching and research quality.

            • Adjuncts were just an example of people who frequently do not publish as much as other groups of faculty. The word “such as” was meant to signify this. I did not write that they were the only such possible example. But, I really don’t understand the concept of adjuncts since I have never encountered any in real life and have only read about them on the Internet. They seem to be a uniquely American thing and even then liberal arts colleges such as Grinnell where I did my BA do not have them.

              • Guest

                If you do not understand a concept, pershaps it would be best not to use it as an example.

                • I don’t need to understand the concept in order to know that they generally publish less than other faculty. Or is everything ever written about adjuncts on the internet a lie? Please show me the evidence that shows that adjuncts publish more than other faculty.

              • Karla

                Most liberal-arts colleges employ adjuncts as sabbatical replacements, but they’re typically called visiting assistant professors.

        • John

          The quality of research being produced at a university has everything to do with the perceived value of an undergraduate degree from an institution (it is not a coincidence that the schools ranked at the top of the US News list are also the schools with the top research agenda), and because “reputation” is the most important thing about what particular undergraduate degree you get, it also has everything to do with the *actual* value of that degree in practical terms.

          That’s not a good thing, but it means that, whatever the quality of education one receives at Duke, the degree is totally worth it.

          • firefall

            Only for fairly limited values of ‘value’, i.e. ones bounded on dollar figures.

            • John

              I suppose. But it’s not like grade inflation makes it impossible to get a good education at Duke if one wants to. It just means you don’t *have* to get a particularly good education to get the degree.

      • John

        I know grad school is very different, and maybe the comparison is not valid. But I’m not sure it’s so different that one can just completely dismiss a comparison without even trying to explain why the comparison is not valid.

        The vast majority of undergraduates at Duke or Harvard are, I’m quite sure, smart enough and hard-working enough to be able to earn their degrees even without grade inflation. Once we accept that, what exactly are we complaining about?

        It’s kind of absurd that everyone at these schools earns A’s. And it has real consequences in terms of grad school acceptance, and probably some elite jobs that tend to hire directly from college, as well. But the unfair benefits accruing to elite university students via grade inflation is much less than the unfair benefits accruing to them via their school’s name and reputation.

        • Visitor

          Have you sat in any Harvard classes? I’ll grant you “majority”, but I wouldn’t be so sure about “vast”…

          Your general point about grade inflation makes a great deal of sense.

          Grad school is a horse of an entirely different color imho, and I sympathize with shunting that debate to a future thread, bc what “prestige” means, what effects it has on student experience, what effects social differences among prosp-student families has on their success with national testing, and what effects student aims (to acheive great learning? to get laid? etc) have on what they get out of their college experience are all big enough topics to merit at least a small book on their own.

          • John

            I’ve never had any experience at Harvard (or Duke), but I taught/TAed/graded for five semesters at the Ivy League school where I got my PhD. The students aren’t as bright or engaged as one would hope, but I couldn’t imagine actually failing more than a few of the very worst.

      • JL

        I dunno Erik, I thought that working with top-notch researchers was an important part of my undergrad education. And that the fact that over 80% of undergrads at my alma mater did research with professors and something like 20% of them had peer-reviewed publications by the time they graduated was a major selling point for the school. We were actually learning to practice the fields that we aspired to join, not just jumping through hoops in the classroom.

        Do you disagree that practicing your field under the guidance of a top-grade researcher increases your “quality” as an undergrad? Is this some STEM vs humanities thing?

        Incidentally, the figure for my own alma mater in that chart seems pretty dubious, given that we still have large numbers of very smart people who fail out. Our less-bad-than-the-school’s-reputation-would-suggest average GPAs were mostly a consequence of our much-later-than-average drop date.

        • While at some liberal-arts schools you can have those kind of close relationships with faculty, the top tier institutions, whether public or private, does not encourage this at all. Very few Harvard professors are working closely with undergraduates on research. The same goes for Texas or Michigan. There’s no incentive in it.

          • Pseudonym

            True, my undergraduate research may have been worthless as research, but it did teach me a lot. And my experience at Stanford was that there were quite a few professors working with undergrads in research, and not just in my field (CS). I don’t know about the breakdown between STEM fields and humanities or social sciences though.

    • Incontinentia Buttocks

      Grade inflation is a bad thing. But the quality of an education involves a lot more than how difficult it is to get an “A.”. And the value of a degree is, as folks have said upthread, about perception as much as education. And that has even less to do with grade inflation.

  • Two words: Richard Nixon.

    Sez Wiki:

    After his graduation from Whittier in 1934, Nixon received a full scholarship to attend Duke University School of Law. The school was new and sought to attract top students by offering scholarships. It paid high salaries to its professors, many of whom had national or international reputations. The number of scholarships was greatly reduced for second and third year students, forcing recipients into intense competition. Nixon not only kept his scholarship but was elected president of the Duke Bar Association, inducted into the Order of the Coif, and graduated third in his class in June 1937. He later wrote of his alma mater: “I always remember that whatever I have done in the past or may do in the future, Duke University is responsible in one way or another.”

    • Mr. Upright

      “I’ve always said that there had to be a Duke. There had to be a place for Richard Nixon to learn constitutional law.”

      — Charles Kuralt

      • witless chum

        Well, you really had to know something about the constitution to violate it the way Nixon did.

  • stingy

    Professors at Irvine and Purdue are damn stingy.
    You can find estimates for grade inflation at over
    200 colleges here.

    • Incontinentia Buttocks

      Actually the graph just shows that they are damn stingier than their predecessors at these institutions. The graph shows how much easier–are harder–it is to get a high grade at these institutions than it was in the past. That’s a fairly literal use of the term “grade inflation.”. But I think we usually use the term in less relative, more absolute terms. We’re interested in how hard or easy it is to get an “A” at a given school more than in whether things are getting better or worse locally.

    • Cody

      Yes, this graph made rounds at Purdue when I was attending. It was in the Purdue newspaper.

      It’s interesting. I’m a firm believer that I don’t give a damn about grades, but having a 3.0 really hurts job prospects when an employer weeds out people by requiring a 3.5 or above.

      If I had just gone to Duke, I could’ve gotten a better job with my inflated GPA! While probably learning less or equal. Of course, it would’ve cost a boat load more being out-of-state.

  • Dave

    I would venture to say that a Duke degree is worth the paper it is written on.

    • rea

      why, yes, I can imagine circumtances in which a piece of paper that size would be darn useul . . .

  • Charles

    Just to expand on what I think John was saying, he wasn’t claiming that faculty research had a direct impact on learning, he was noting it as a feature of Duke’s great resources. And the fact is, it’s much better to go to a rich university than a poor one. Why the library resources alone make such a big difference. Also there IS some possible trickle-down of great reseratch into great teaching. I learned about ecology and invasive species from a hotshot ecologist who discovered dozens of important marine invaders and repeatedly testified before Congress on his research; he was also a gifted teacher who could compelling describe the field work and methods that he pioneered to understand invasions. I’m not sure even an amazing teacher could have reproduced that learning experience. I know this is not always the case, but there is a difference between learning from someone who is repeating ideas versus someone who is originating ideas: this is why scholars crowd the panels at conference with big names rather than the panels full of solid but undistinguished folks–who may be great teachers!–but who are producing derivative work. Also why exactly is grad school so different than undergrad? I teach in a PhD program and wish I could hand out Cs but I can’t because my students and grad chair would flip. I just think Alan and Erik are way too dismissive of a legitimate point; it’s good to be at a resource-rich university and there CAN be added value by studying with a star researcher.

    • John

      Certainly true that research brings in resources that other schools don’t have, but the main thing I was saying is that faculty research leads to good rankings for the school (from US News and World Report, etc.), and that good ranking for the school make a degree more valuable, economically, no matter what the students are learning.

      There are obviously some ancillary educational benefits to going to a top research university. It’s certainly better than going to a second or third tier university with a shitty library and professors teaching 4-4 loads, and possibly still getting enormous lecture classes. I do think, though, that it’s pretty obvious that the top liberal arts colleges are much better at actually educating undergraduates than most top research universities.

      • John

        Shorter me: the primary value of a bachelor’s degree from an elite university does not lie in the value of the education received there, but in the credential.

        • sparks

          So, like most other things in the US, it’s the wrapper, not the content.

          • John

            When the question is “Is a Duke degree worth the paper it’s printed on?”, then, yes, of course. There are other, related questions one could ask where the answer would be different.

            • sparks

              I’ll refine it. Is a Duke degree valued by employers/businessmen more than its true value as an indicator of competence such that a Duke degree can be a vehicle to give the holder an unearned career advantage?

              Caveats like private college vs. public, etc. need not be figured into this.

              • John

                Yes, certainly, although I’d argue that this has very little to do with grade inflation.

                • sparks

                  I didn’t ask or care about grade inflation in this context, it’s immaterial. Just if having a sheepskin from Coach K’s Kollege of Not-So-Much Knowledge is getting you places a better educated person from U of Flyover State can’t even get a look in.

          • Mike F.

            The credential or “wrapper” is worth what the status anxiety of the buyer thinks it’s worth. It’s clear to me that status anxiety alone drives Duke undergraduate applications. Comparatively speaking — is there any other way to determine “worth”? — are there any practical reasons for going to Duke?

            For example: A resident of North Carolina will pay 7500. per year in tuition and fees at UNC Chapel Hill, and 53,000. at Duke. So the cost of a BA is 30,000. at one T1 research university and 200,000. at the other 9 miles away. Which of those BA’s is going to get you to the next level? It all depends on where you’re going and what for, of course, but it’s hard to believe quality Carolina graduate is six times less likely to achieve their goals than a Duke graduate.
            It’s an undergraduate degree. All other qualifiers being equal, how much difference will the name on the diploma make at that level?

            • Mike F.

              And “to refine it” some more: If you are trying to impress an employer/businessman (especially in banking) in North Carolina, you’d be better off going to Davidson.

              • John

                Davidson’s price is closer to Duke’s than to UNC’s, no?

                • Mike F.

                  Davidson is 52,000. right now. So, yeah.

                • Mr. Upright

                  For the same cost, you are likely to get a much better undergraduate education at Davidson than at Duke. The college missions and faculty assignments are completely different, with Davidson focusing exclusively on undergraduates.

                • Karla

                  Sticker price isn’t particularly useful; if you’re bright, a place like Davidson will knock down the price considerably with scholarships.

            • John

              I’d assume there are some advantages to Duke over UNC, but, yeah, that’s a particularly crazy comparison. Of course, not that many people from North Carolina go to Duke. Most Duke students probably come from the Northeast, where the main public schools are not nearly as prestigious as UNC.

              • John

                More broadly, I’d say that anyone living in California, Michigan, North Carolina, Virginia, Wisconsin, Texas and probably a few other states who is able to get into one of their state’s very excellent public research universities is completely insane to go to any private research university instead, with the possible exceptions of Harvard-Princeton-Yale-Stanford (or MIT-Cal Tech if applicable). There’s just no reason to go to Duke instead of UNC, or Northwestern instead of Michigan, or Georgetown instead of UVA, or USC instead of UCLA. Even Stanford over Berkeley seems pretty questionable if you aren’t getting really grant-based substantial financial aid to go to Stanford.

                On the other hand, a lot of states don’t have a public research university that’s quite at that level of prestige, and in those cases I guess it might make sense to pay more for the prestige, even if the education you’re getting isn’t much better. A Penn degree is worth a lot more than a Penn State degree, for instance. A Duke degree may not give you much more ability to get good jobs or to get into good grad schools than a UNC degree, but it gives you a lot more ability to do so than a degree from, say, the University of South Carolina, or SUNY Binghamton, or Rutgers.

                • Pseudonym

                  Speaking from personal/family experience, one big advantage of Stanford over Berkeley is the ability to graduate in four years. Another is being free to switch majors. Not that they aren’t both very good schools of course.

              • Mike F.

                I don’t know how the in-state/ out-of-state admissions break down, but I do know that Duke has an enormous regional presence. I suspect their regional application ratios are similar to Carolina’s.

                Duke is still — and still sees itself as — something of a step sib to the Ivy League.

                Just as the cost of Duke v UNC is striking , the status differential between Duke and Harvard, Yale or Princeton is significant. I’m thinking that If a student can get into Duke, they can get into the real thing and afford it.
                After all, Duke bases it’s admission requirements on the Harvard model. I wonder how attractive Duke really is (over and above other T1 private schools) beyond their regional status?

                And, again I assume we are talking about an undergraduate education here.

    • Also there are undergrad degrees where research is/could be an important aspect of what you do. I realise Erik may not think so, since that’s probably not the case in history (I don’t know), but for instance in physics, I would say it can make a huge difference.

      Apart from this narrow point, ditto John.

      • Mr. Upright

        That is a major purpose behind NSF’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program. There is no reason for science students even from small liberal arts colleges to miss out on research opportunities. The R1 institutions who host them use REUs as a graduate recruiting tool.

  • Davis X. Machina

    Don’t think of it as ‘grade inflation’. Think of it as ‘customer satisfaction’. And who doesn’t want to leas the industry in that?

    Goodbye US News, hello J.D. Power and Son

    • Paul Campos

      Goodbye US News, hello J.D. Power and Son

      This would actually represent a significant improvement.

      • Anonymous

        J.D. Power and Sons looks at the results (of the “after”), and we can’t have that now with colleges now.

  • Bloix

    At any given school, the departments of hard sciences, math, and econ have less grade inflation than do humnanities, other social sciences, and business.

    Some – not most, but some – of the difference between schools may refect a difference in the distribution of majors (e.g., Purdue, Harvey Mudd).

    • Philip

      As I posted below, Mudders also get hurt by having a large core. Most students will struggle in at least a few core classes, because we take a bio class, 3 chem classes, 3 physics classes, 6 math classes, an engineering class, 2 writing classes, a CS class, and 2 labs (1 of chem and 1 of physics) during the course of our core.

  • Mr. Upright

    I don’t know if they have implemented it yet, but a few years ago the UNC faculty senate was planning to institute a policy of publishing the median grade for each class on a transcript. That seems like an effective way to combat (or at least contextualize) grade inflation.

  • Philip

    Glad to see that my school is the lowest private school on there by a comfortable margin. My GPA’s not so glad though. Which brings up the real problem here. We’re a small school. We’re well known by big STEM companies, but a lot of smaller companies have never heard of us.

    The fact that our GPAs are low and we actually have a non-trivial number of people who can’t earn our degrees hurts us when we try to get jobs or get into grad school, because GPA inflation is the norm. It doesn’t matter that it only happens because we must take 20-25%% more classes than Ivy League students to graduate, that we have an extensive core that hurts many students’ GPAs (most people aren’t good at everything), and that we aren’t handed grades, that we take almost as many humanities classes as major classes. Our number isn’t as big as someone Harvard handed a degree, so we’re obviously not as qualified.

  • ironic irony

    This whole article and discussion makes me, a graduate of Fly Over State University, feel very stupid. No hope for us state university system graduates! (Especially if we aren’t from California.) There goes my application to grad school at Harvard.

  • Steve Holmes

    “Do Duke students just get an 4.0 when they write their tuition checks?”

    The get the 4.0 when the checks clear.

    • Cody

      I think he meant when their parents wrote their tuition checks?

      I find it hard to imagine someone working their way through Duke.

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