Editorial: ISU in the top tier of schools, but why?

Editorial Board

According to U.S. News & World Report, which annually ranks colleges and universities in the United States, Iowa State is the 46th-best national public university (a category that included 173 institutions) and 101st-best among 281 institutions that grant bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees.

The fact there are more than 4,000 institutions of higher learning of some kind means 46 is still a pretty good place to be.  But with the exception of engineering and agriculture students, many of us probably don’t walk around campus thinking: “Gee, I go to one of the greatest schools in the country.”  The academic rigor of our institution is not always impressed upon our minds.

Why is that so?

Rarely in our classes do we feel challenged as a matter of routine.  Yet, we cannot be so intelligent that college is a breeze.  Nor could college be so easy anyone willing to put in 15 hours a week to go to class and copy PowerPoint slides could do it.


One potential answer — and one of the hardest to pin down and study — is grade inflation.  In light of perennial complaints about how woefully inadequate public education is everywhere in the United States, the fact that proportionally more college students have higher GPAs than they did before the 1970s implicitly points to instructors doling out higher grades for lower quality work than used to be expected in collegiate learning.

The ISU Fact Book shows that just from 2001 to 2010, the average GPA of a freshman in his or her fall semester rose from 2.57 to 2.65; overall, the average GPA of an Iowa State student rose from 2.80 to 2.87 in the same time.  Remembering the deep budgetary cuts due to lower state appropriations ($275.8 million in fiscal year 2008 to $216.6 million in FY 2012) and the subsequent cuts in programs and faculty, we doubt educational quality has improved much in the past decade, no matter what the GPA numbers say.

Despite his insistence Iowa State is a good school (which it is) and that the faculty here are good at what they do and vital to Iowa State’s mission (which they are), President Steven Leath largely left them out of his installation address.  While there were challenges to Gov. Terry Branstad to continue supporting public higher education and to the university as a whole to work on behalf of Iowans, there was no challenge to professors to increase the rigor of our academics.  Leath seemed to take it for granted that the rigor exists.

Adversity is the most educational environment.  Nobody ever learned anything from doing what was easy.