We professors hear quite a bit about students who feel “entitled.” Although most of us have a few war stories to tell, it seems like this is a small minority of students to me. However, the minority that engages in entitled behavior give us more than their fair share of gray hairs. These students can really take the fun out of teaching, so setting boundaries and clearly communicating expectations become super important parts of the process.

In 2008, Ellen Greenberger and her colleagues attempted to construct an Academic Entitlement scale. Their results seemed to confirm my anecdotal experience that a small but significant minority of students share attitudes consistent with academic entitlement. You can see the percentages that responded to these items with slightly agree, agree, or strongly agree scores in the graphic accompanying this post.

Some of these are not surprising, but others are truly remarkable. I imagine the look I would get if I expressed ANY  of these attitudes to my professors at UCLA. Times change.

The item that really caught my attention was the one about reading most of the book or attending most of the classes as grounds for expecting a B. In my own academic experience, if you did what the professor expected, that was a C or average performance. To get a B, you had to shine relative to your classmates, and an A meant you could probably do a decent job of teaching the course.  I do believe that times have changed in this regard, and many of my students believe that much more modest performance is needed for an A or B. Regardless, I can certainly assure my behavioral neuroscience students that reading “most” of the book is unlikely to result in a passing grade. A grade of B is more likely to need repeated readings of the book.

What this does tell us is that  we need to communicate our standards to our students very clearly at the outset. When I first started teaching, my syllabus was a single page. Today’s version is nine pages. I try to anticipate mistaken assumptions, like being able to do extra credit at the end of a course to salvage a grade, so that we head off any problems. Reading the list compiled by Greenberger et al. (2008), though, suggests to me that I need to expand my syllabus further.

The sources of these entitled attitudes remain unclear. Some people suggest that the habit of administrators to sell the “consumer” model of education is a root cause. If parents are paying a lot of money, this line of thinking goes, the least you can do is give their kids a good grade. According to the consumer model, professors are no longer authority figures in the classroom, but more like servants or concierges who are there to ensure a good educational experience.

College professors are also on the receiving end of common practices in the K-12 end of the educational system. One first year student came to an office hour to express her concerns about her grade. She was annoyed at her high school for not preparing her better for college. She said she had a reputation at her high school for being a “good” student, so she received A’s even when she didn’t turn in any work. If the K-12 does not require excellence for an A, no wonder our standards come as a rude shock.

Another writer emphasizes the need to shift the locus of control off the professor and back onto the student. Students whose grades have not been tightly linked to performance in the past might have a type of learned helplessness. They view grades as arbitrary and therefore subject to negotiation. To counter this, I take the position that grades are not a gift I bestow but rather something the student must earn according to the guidelines in the syllabus.

Recently, I’ve tried the following strategy. Although I never make grades harder to achieve than a standard distribution (90% or more for an A-, 92.5% or more for an A, etc.), I usually end up with a curve. I compare this with Hunger Games. If students want a good grade, they have to outperform their peers. While some people might view this as overly competitive, I think of it as a reality check that prepares students for what they’ll face after school. Usually, we get hired because we’re better than the other candidates for a job.

Greenberger et al. (2008) was published eight years ago, which in cohort terms, is quite a bit of time. It would be interesting to see a follow-up of their Academic Entitlement study.

Categories: Teaching Psychology

15 Comments

hannahphelps · January 11, 2016 at 2:41 pm

I found this article both interesting and complexing for me to take a stance on. I am familiar with the topic of “academic entitlement” and definitely see how times have changed in regards to grading and grade expectation for students. I agree with your style of grading, as an “A” should not be expected or earned by those who simply master the material but for those who understand it on a higher level and potentially could teach the material themselves. However, I think that, in order for students to be satisfied with this, there would have to be a societal redefining of letter grades, beginning with adjustment from undergraduate and graduate university acceptance. Until this happens, I am split on this issue and think that not following the norm in just a single class could create problems for the student and professor to an extent.

Laura Freberg · January 11, 2016 at 3:53 pm

Hi, Hannah.

That is very useful feedback! I think that we professors inherit whatever practices are being used by the K-12 teachers, and it’s hard for us to keep up with that unless we have kids at home (mine are now in their 30s). I generally do not get complaints about my grades, so I’m assuming that students are okay with their results or at least think the results are fair. I agree that the grad schools also make getting good grades very important, but most consider many other factors, such as potential for creative research. Thanks again for sharing your insights!

BrittanyNelson · January 15, 2016 at 11:06 pm

I agree with your thoughts on the consumer model of education as being a driving factor in educational entitlement. In addition to professors feeling pressure from the students and parents to give good grades because of the price of tuition, I also feel as though there is pressure from the administration of universities. Colleges are in a constant competition with one another, and if one gains a reputation as having professors grading “harder” due to higher, and seemingly unrealistic standards to some, the majority of students would likely select to go elsewhere. This would result in a decrease in enrollment and less money being brought to the school overall. While I do enjoy a good challenge in school and disagree with all of the entitled mentalities posted, I can understand the desire for an occasional easy “A” in college. When taking a lower division GE alongside other major courses, I do not always have the proper time it takes to devote to the class without sacrificing other essential factors of my life. I would rather have a less strenuous curriculum in that course and enjoy it as a smooth ride, so to speak, then end up earning a bad grade because I did not have the proper time to devote to the class due to other factors. This way, I would still be learning something about a topic that is unfamiliar to me in an enjoyable setting rather than stressing to a point that I become cynical about the topic and reluctant to learn about it again in the future.

rzehnder · January 22, 2016 at 10:09 pm

To begin , there are really to different types of entitlement being presented in this blog, and the table at the top. One is entitlement for good grades, and the other is entitlement for a good education. I agree that no student should get good grades because they are paying a lot for school. However, professors expect a lot of dedication and time from students, and college now costs a fortune. Therefore, a certain amount of entitlement or expectation from professors is reasonable. In general I think that professors should hold themselves to the same standards that they hold us to.

aubreyyoung · February 2, 2016 at 3:42 pm

As a contemporary college student, I find this article very intriguing. I have definitely met the minority described: the students who believe the fact that they pay for college entitles them to a good GPA regardless of their work ethic. However, I also identify with the struggled transition between excelling in high school but the same amount of work not producing the same results in college. Unfortunately, I believe those who face this same dilemma and feel helpless greatly overlaps with the entitled. They feel as though they have put the necessary effort forward and complain when things do not work out their way. Besides a reality check on themselves, I am not sure there is much professors are able to do to combat the students feelings.

annaliseconroy · March 6, 2016 at 11:19 pm

Wow, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this blog post as I can connect to it from my own perspective as a student as well as my experiences with my peers. Last year was my first year in the college environment and I definitely learned what kind of work was necessary to receive adequate A’s. I watched all too many of the people around me, however, complaining about a professor. I am not innocent by any means, for I have definitely complained about a professor’s high expectations. I would quickly put myself in check, however, because no great accomplishment ever comes easy. I have really come to appreciate hard work and a willingness to work harder than those around you. I have learned so much about myself just in the past quarter because of your teaching style. It’s sad that some students want to have good grades served to them on a silver platter, because at the end of the day it is the hard work that goes into the good grade that really yields the feeling of pride.

estrickf · April 7, 2016 at 12:36 pm

Dr. Freberg,

This topic fascinates me because I am also bothered by the entitlement students have towards their grades. I think the root of the problem stems from their up-bringing and previous experience in receiving grades. Some parents very much teach their children to complain or negotiate until they get what the want. I am also certain that many professors deal with parents that think they are “expert negotiators” and can impact a students grade for them. Which is very wrong in my opinion. This attitude combined with a schooling system that teaches students that minimal effort is required to obtain an A, can develop into one of these “entitled” students. However, I am a student that comes from the opposite spectrum that does work very hard and tries to follow all of the assignments that the professor asks for and the extra work just to get a decent grade. I am in disagreeance with the way we obtain grades because I am a poor test taker. The professor does not see the work and amount of hours studied, and therefore should not give a single way to demonstrate the knowledge obtained. That is why I am in agreeance with your stance on the matter by your statement that, “there would have to be a societal redefining of letter grades, beginning with adjustment from undergraduate and graduate university acceptance”.

Laura Freberg · April 8, 2016 at 9:13 am

Please keep doing what you’re doing! I do believe strongly that hard work pays off. Maybe a student can push or shove and gain an advantage once in awhile, but in the long run, this is not a strategy that leads to success. I don’t know of any Olympic athletes who reach the medal stand that way, and school and life achievement is very much like sports!

vimorris@calpoly.edu · May 22, 2016 at 8:33 pm

At the end of the quarter I will have been in college for one full year and I would say my high school prepared me very well for the work load I have encountered here at Cal Poly. However, the expectation for my peers in high school was earning a 4.0gpa and that was still considered to be average. I agree that an average student should receive a C, above average a B and so on but unfortunately to get into academically rigorous schools often times a 4.0gpa isn’t enough and can thus feel average. The demand for students who can excel beyond receiving straight A’s through AP courses makes it difficult to drawn a clear line between what it means to be an average A student and an advanced A student. I’m curious to know if students view on grades would alter if there were no longer a way to receive above a 4.0 in high school. Maybe then coming to college and receiving the equivalent to what the A was in high school -more along the lines of a B or C- wouldn’t feel so foreign.

victoriatonikian · May 22, 2016 at 8:55 pm

I found this article very interesting especially when thinking about the transition from high school to college. In high school good grades were quite easy for me to receive and I think that creates a type of shock when going into college and receiving less than what you felt was deserved. I think my high school did a good job preparing me for what college would be like by explaining it, but not by exemplifying it. I think that if at a younger age students are introduced to this idea that the literal amount of work will correlate to a grade then it would be less of a burden on professors in the long run. I do agree that some students think that just by showing up and opening up their text book they are entitled to a grade but I believe that mindset quickly changes after a first few quarters at Cal Poly.

alexandrabush · May 31, 2016 at 1:01 pm

I believe that we need to change how we interpret grades. If teachers are expecting to be handing out lots of C’s because they are considered “average”, then parents need to understand that A’s are theoretically impossible. In my own personal experience, I can either spend all my time focusing solely on school with no social life in hopes of an A or I can work in some time for friends which drops me to a B or C. My mom is fully aware of how college teachers grade, so she has never pushed me for “good grades” in fear of turning me into a “depressed robot” that only cares about school. My dad is the opposite. He doesn’t understand how I dropped from being a straight A student. In high school, you study 6 hours and get a 100%. In college, you study for 11 hours and get a 48%. High school in no way prepares students for college or even the real world.

maddieadie · June 2, 2016 at 3:18 pm

This is a very interesting topic, especially for college students these days. Grade inflation seems to be skyrocketing in both grade school and college. I have a few friends who go to an IV league school and they say that it is shockingly easy to get A’s because they don’t want students GPAs to be low. I have even heard someone say that Harvard only gives A’s. It is crazy! Grade inflation is also very apparent in high school as well. My roommate, who was a straight A student in high school barely manages to get by with a C in a lot of her college classes, even with doing double the amount of work she did in high school. It is not that she does not work hard, its just that she was in shock that A’s did not come from simply doing the assignments. This shows how these student expectations slowly build throughout grade school because of the constant grade inflation.

brittanymertzel · November 5, 2016 at 3:31 pm

I don’t know how professors do it. This article really made me think of not only what I say and think in the classroom, but also what I see my peers behaving like. Ellen Greenberger’s experiment seems like it was very interesting and something that I am totally interested in! It would be very compelling to guide an experiment based on students and how entitled they feel they are in the classroom. In one of my classes this quarter in particular, there is a student who questions the professor just about every class we have. That not only make the professor frustrated, but it makes the rest of the students in class frustrated as well! Some students have very minimal respect for their professors in this day and age, especially noticed in high school in regards to teachers. Teachers are taken advantage of, and I think it is important to establish ground rules as a professor or teacher to at least establish some authority and respect between a student and a professor.

Charlene Niku · November 7, 2016 at 12:13 pm

I would definitely agree that the K-12 grading system compared to the one in college contributes to this idea of “academic entitlement” that many students hold. I have found it much harder to earn the A’s and in some cases the B’s I received in high-school. Even as a sophomore, I am often shocked and very worried when I get back a midterm that isn’t an A or B that I was used to in college. I think part of the reason, for me personally, that the grading system is so difficult to deal with is that in high school I took anywhere from 8 to 10 classes at a time, whereas now I take 3 to 4 classes at time. I thought I would be very well prepared for college after doing well in high school. Although I am not performing poorly now, I still stress over testing and always having test-taking anxiety before exams in college. I only identify with some of the students’ responses to the academic entitlement assessment, but I definitely see where the frustration comes from both the students and the professors. I think that part of the clash between students and faculty comes from the societal pressure and competition students experience nowadays, as well as to how times have changed, as explained in the article. For me personally, the phrase that “C’s get degrees” is out of the question – mostly because I know how difficult getting into graduate school and finding a job are these days, and also in large part due to the pressure I receive from my family to be a straight A student.

rachelcarlson · February 25, 2017 at 3:02 pm

I feel that many students do feel entitled to As and Bs, and a B as doing just above the minimum amount of work. I have had one other professor in my time at Cal Poly who has professed a similar belief — and her classes are challenging. She makes you work for the A. While I do agree that students do expect professors to be sympathetic to their efforts, I also think it is important to make material accessible to students and not overwhelm them with unrealistic amounts of work. College is no longer just for the upper-middle class, and the importance of a college degree has shifted. Where previously MOST people went to school for the sake of learning, now most students go to school to get a job. College has opened up to members of all social classes. Though many students are still lucky enough to be from upper-middle class families who can afford to put them through school and give them extra pocket change, many students today are stressed by jobs, paying their own rent, and taking on very adult responsibilities, which may make tending to their studies a greater challenge.

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