Dear C is a Failing Grade

Dear Ms. Scholar, I recently saw the statistics on the numbers of As given in college classes nationwide. When more than 45% of students receive As, should we even give Ds and Fs? Perhaps C is a failing grade. Should we even attempt to retain students who earn below a 2.0 QPA? Should we begin telling students who earn a 2.5 or 3.0 that they are on academic suspension?


Ms. Scholar at work.

Dear C is a Failing Grade, In Ms. Scholar’s mind, a C continues to be an honorable, albeit average grade, although she suspects that many students, employers, and graduate programs disagree.

However, to an increasing degree, you are correct. In this graphic from Rojstaczer (n.d.), for example, over 45% of grades awarded nationwide in 2012 were As – up from 15% in 1940. See Figure 1. The other big change seen across time is in the number of Cs. Bs and Cs had been almost equal in frequency (with Cs having a slight edge); now Cs are awarded only half as often as Bs.


Figure 1. From Rojstaczer (n.d.)

Faculty have probably not become far superior instructors during this period – although Ms. Scholar believes that faculty are much more likely to consider effective teaching and student learning at this point in time than when she was in school. Instead, it seems that expectations have dropped, as has study time  (Babcock & Marks, 2010). Changes in study time, for example, have been observed across a range of institutions; study time is now about 2/3 of what it was in 1961. See Figure 2.

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Figure 2. Average study time for full-time students at four-year US colleges by institution type and selectivity, 1961 and 2003 (Babcock & Marks, 2010)

If about 80% of students nationwide earned As or Bs in 2012, a C clearly has become a below average grade. Students now seem to be more aware of this underlying grade distribution and protest scores very different from what they would receive in another course or at another school. “Good courses” or “good professors” – from a student’s view – often seem to be those giving a disproportionate number of As.

Ms. Scholar’s grade distribution is well below that described by Rojstaczer (n.d.). See Figure 1. Still, she admits awarding Cs to students whose performance is below what she sees as average or acceptable. Even so, some students are not happy. For example, one student complained about his grade when he received 9/10 on a reflection paper, seeming to believe that the fact that he had turned it in and responded to the prompt should have been sufficient to earn him full credit. Another teared up when told that she could not earn a B in our course (she would need to earn more points than were still available and was barely earning a C).

What does a C mean? Are those of us who attempt to maintain high expectations reasonable? Should our students expect that their work, regardless of quality, deserves a B or A?

Should we tell students – and the public – that our students’ work is acceptable when it clearly is not? To what degree is it fair when our individual norms and expectations vary significantly from national norms? Ms. Scholar does not have the answer for these and other questions.

Ms. Scholar’s senior year of high school was spent in a program that emphasized self-directed learning and did not give grades. Such a program changed the ways that she sees grades. What matters? Not grades, but her students’ learning and engagement.

To partially remind herself of this, Ms. Scholar has posted a copy of Tom Wayman’s (1993) poem, Did I Miss Anything?, on her door. At one point, Wayman concludes (tongue firmly in cheek):

None of the content of this course
has value or meaning
Take as many days off as you like:
any activities we undertake as a class
I assure you will not matter either to you or me
and are without purpose.

Your presence, your work does matter.

Ms. Scholar recognizes that she has responded only to the easiest of your questions. Briefly, she attempts to be realistic about what grades really mean, while also attempting to keep her finger in the dike against grade inflation.  Although it is unlikely that C will again become the modal grade, we should let students know when their work is below par.

Perhaps we should focus not so much on the grades we award, but on the expectations we set and the quality of work we are willing to accept. Ms. Scholar believes we should set our expectations high. – Ms. Scholar


Babcock, P., & Marks, M. (2010). Leisure College, USA: The decline in student study time. American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, Education Outlook, No. 7.
Retrieved from

Rojstaczer, S. (n.d.). Grade inflation at American colleges and universities. Retrieved from

Wayman, T. (1993). Did I miss anything? Selected Poems 1973-1993. Madeira Park, BC: Harbour Publishing. Retrieved from

If you have questions regarding teaching, student/faculty issues, or other comments/suggestions, please write to: Ms. Scholar c/o


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