Grade inflation hurts students and colleges

My first week of 2014 will be marked by eating a lot of food, watching too much college football, and regularly reloading my online transcript as I wait for last semester’s grades to show up. And hopefully, if I get good grades I will have earned them. But I can’t be too sure…

Earlier in the semester here at Kenyon College it was reported that our average GPA has risen by roughly half a point since the 1980s, mirroring a trend seen across the country.

Perhaps most notably, the Harvard Crimson reported last month that the median grade given at the storied institution is an A-, with a clean A being the most commonly-conferred grade.

College graduates via Shutterstock

College graduates via Shutterstock

The optimistic explanation for this phenomenon is that today’s students are simply smarter and more studious than their predecessors. If the standards don’t change but the students do, then it should come as no surprise that today’s grade distribution won’t look like those seen in earlier decades. Particularly in quantitative fields like math and science, the argument might go, where there is a clearly-defined body of knowledge that is relevant to the course at the level being taught, it doesn’t make sense to move the goalposts and make the tests harder if students don’t really need to know the extra information.

Others, on the more pessimistic side of the conversation, instead argue that colleges are caving to the pressure to churn out employable students. As more and more Americans attend college, it becomes more difficult to stand out in each graduating class. If schools want their students to get hired, it helps if they have better grades. As soon as one school makes the calculation that inflating their grades will lead to more successful graduates and, therefore, more prestige and more alumni donations down the road, it creates a prisoner’s dilemma in which it is in every school’s best interest to inflate their grades.

It’s important to point out that these statistics are all being taken in aggregate: If possible, it would be useful to split these data out into classes that are graded on curves versus classes that are based on objective, quantitative metrics. If a professor gives the same math test for twenty years straight, and students happen to do better on that test over time, it’s hard to argue that the students haven’t legitimately earned those higher grades.

On the other hand, if a professor grades on a curve, and each student is graded relative to the other students in their class, giving the top ten percent A’s in 1990 and the top twenty percent A’s in 2000, and the top thirty percent A’s in 2010 is hard to attribute to the students’ abilities. Given the degree to which grades have risen, it’s likely that both of these are occurring, but it would definitely be useful to try and separate the two.

In a response that amounts to a white flag with a middle finger painted on it, Harvey Mansfield, a notable professor of government at Harvard, has begun giving his students two grades: the grade that goes on their transcript, and the (often lower) grade that he thinks they truly earned in his class. Unable to change the culture of grade inflation on his own – if one professor holds out against inflating their grades students will simply avoid that professor – giving the unofficial, “true” grades at the very least encourages his students to reflect on their work and, hopefully, take some degree of pride in it.

At the very least, Mansfield’s system provides some mechanism for rewarding and differentiating excellent work. With so many good grades crowding the top of college graduating classes, it’s often difficult to distinguish between good and great scholarship. Mansfield’s system certainly doesn’t fix the problem, but at the very least it lets his students know that a problem exists.

Another proposal, this one coming from Bloomberg assistant editor and recent Yale graduate Zara Kessler, suggests that we should simply expand the grading scale, like we did with the SAT:

Perhaps… we should simply break open the top, adding, say, Z above A and Y above Z. An A would be deflated — three notches below perfection. Grade-point averages would have to be retooled, maybe expanding to fill a 5-point scale. Over time, and as necessary, more letters could be added to the mix. Harvard could transform the blunt, mass-distributed, undifferentiated A into a conveyor of discernment.

Things change: Less than a decade ago, a score of 1600 on the SAT was perfection. Now — with a third section on writing, and 800 more possible points, added — it’s somewhat mediocre (63rd percentile). Perhaps the fate of the A should be the same. We may need to inflate our measures of academic progress to keep inflation from rendering them obsolete.

On its face, it doesn’t appear that Kessler’s proposal, if implemented, would do much to alter the incentives for schools and professors to inflate their grades. In other words, there’s no reason why Harvard’s median grade wouldn’t rise to a Y- if Y became the highest grade available. They’d simply re-inflate to the new top grade.

Furthermore, Kessler’s implication that the SAT’s were expanded to account for more competent test-takers doesn’t square with the data: The average scores on the critical reading and math sections of the SAT have shown no clear trend in either direction since 1986. The addition of the writing section may have made it harder to get a perfect score on the SATs by simply lengthening the test, but the section wasn’t added because students were getting too smart, or because somehow SAT scores were unfairly inflating over the years.

Accepting for a moment the premise that grade inflation is a bad thing – as it unfairly dilutes the work of standout students by giving their less-invested peers similar grades and, by extension, job prospects – something will have to be done to discourage the practice’s incentives. As long as schools stand to gain prestige and finances by giving their students more A’s than they have rightfully earned, grades will continue to rise. As this rise continues, employers will find it increasingly difficult to distinguish between average and standout recent graduates, turning to non-academic indicators such as extracurricular activities, internships and work experience to compare students entering the workforce.

Ironically, this means that an upward spiral in grades only serves to perpetuate a downward spiral in the value of a college degree. While individual institutions of higher education stand to benefit financially in the short-to-medium term by inflating their grades, they collectively stand to lose credibility in the long-term.  But as with all good tragedies of the commons, it’s not at all clear how the upward (and thus downward) spiral can be broken.


Jon Green is a senior Political Science major and Public Policy concentrator at Kenyon College. He is also the co-editor in chief of the Kenyon Observer, the school's student-run political journal. Jon worked as a field organizer for Tom Perriello in 2010 and recently returned to AMERICAblog from the Obama campaign, where he was a Deputy Regional Field Director based in Hampton, Virginia. He writes on a variety of topics but pays particularly close attention to elections, political psychology and the use of social media. Jon on Google+, and his .

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  • http://www.americablog.com/ Naja pallida

    The sad part is, there are people with an MS degree doing jobs like that all over the country, because they have no other choice. The market is entirely in the employer’s favor right now. Making it so they can demand whatever requirements they want for whatever job, because there are literally thousands of people applying for any given open position. At least when it comes to jobs that don’t involve dipping things in hot grease, checking out customers, or mopping up puke. Take a browse through Craiglist job ads. Some of the requirements are absolutely absurd for the given job description. And the whole situation is highly exploitative. Often with people being hired for a relatively low-paying position, but due to their knowledge and skill level, are being forced take on other responsibilities beyond the initial job, and aren’t being paid any extra for it. They can’t complain, for fear of losing their job, because there are countless other people just waiting for an opening.

  • http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/djzebbie Quick Brown Dog

    Why don’t we stop handing out bachelor’s degrees to everyone and their second cousin’s step-uncle thrice removed, and while we’re at it end the ridiculous practice of degree inflation as well. There ought to be a law against having to compete with someone with a master’s degree for a f*ing secretary job, or having to obtain a minimum bachelor’s for things that don’t even require eighth grade. I once saw a job ad in the paper for “medical secretary,” $9/hour, basically taking appointments and calling up people with reminders. Minimum requirement: MS in Nursing “or equivalent.” WTF? A five year old can enter an appointment in Outlook! Who the hell REQUIRES graduate school to call up patients and say “Hello, Mr. Smith, this is Dr. Jones’ office, you have an appointment for an eye exam on Friday at 9:30. If you have any questions, please call our office at 555-1234. Have a good day.” THAT requires a master’s degree???

  • http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/djzebbie Quick Brown Dog

    Liberal arts classes are irrelevant and pointless anyway. You won’t need to recall the name of Millard Filmore’s secretary of state to save your life. But don’t feel too bad: you’d have to be a moron from Jay Leno’s “Jaywalking” not to know what year the War of 1812 occurred.

    Jay: “On what day were the attacks of September 11, 2001?”
    Twit: “Uh… February 34, 1987?”

  • http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/djzebbie Quick Brown Dog

    Not only that, but any level of Shakespeare is patently irrelevant for today’s workforce. Unless your job consists of asking “to want fries with that or not to want fries with that”. Macbeth = McDonalds.

  • http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/djzebbie Quick Brown Dog

    “a filter for corporate HR departments”

    …who filter you out if your degree is in English, history, philosophy, or anything ending in *-ology. Welcome to Wal-Mart, have a sticker with that $150K toilet paper degree in (insert bruised minority group here) Studies.

    “To want fries with that or not to want fries with that?” –English major

  • http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/djzebbie Quick Brown Dog

    100% true about degree inflation.

    But stop calling me Shirley.

  • http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/djzebbie Quick Brown Dog

    In that case, a W- should be a grade of epic failure.

  • eggroll_jr

    Finnish universities give out grades, but the emphasis is on passing the course. If you fail, you just retake the exam. It is harder to get in the university, but since the state is picking up most of the bill, it also wants to see graduation and success. If the student consistently underperforms, state support is removed and the student can’t get into needed classes..

  • http://adgitadiaries.com/ karmanot

    Yep :-)

  • Larry Ft Pierce

    great reply.

  • mirror

    You can’t win. Mostly the critics are operating under some version of the idea that, “I’m special, so if everybody gets an A, then people can’t tell that I’m more special than those less able people who got As too.” So any counter argument tends to be taken personally.

    I’m still trying to figure out why it matters very much. First, although I don’t think the point of college is to vet employees for the job market, employers have plenty of ways to tell whether someone is the kind of employ they are looking for relative to other people with the same grades. Second, I have yet to hear anyone in one of these discussions (which have been going on for decades, especially since the elites finally reclaimed the colleges from the rif raf GI Bill recipients), anyone, put forth evidence that grade inflation is causing graduate school money to go to undeserving candidates.

    What I see is that our schools are being hurt primarily by a growing disrespect for learning that doesn’t directly serve the needs of private corporate entities. For example, grade inflation in top universities, liberal arts colleges, and main stream state schools isn’t what is undermining science research in America or undercutting the teaching of evolution.

    Or, I’m just being cranky.

  • https://profiles.google.com/BobMunck/about Bob Munck

    Math?

  • Larry Ft Pierce

    TWO words, “YOU win!” One word, “Duh-Byuh!”

  • http://adgitadiaries.com/ karmanot

    Two words: George Bush

  • Larry Ft Pierce

    I taught school many years. Public schools have a wide range of students. Harvard, Yale, MIT, etc., do NOT. Admissions continually raise standards to the point where everyone is brilliant and capable. They admit only the very very best. ALL of their students are capable of incredible achievements. Why should they NOT all receive “A” if they perform according to what is requested? One either passes a test, or does not! “C” is traditionally regarded as “average,” but there are NO “average” students in most universities. A “C” student at Harvard is either goofing off or has problems outside the classroom. When I entered the University of Miami in 1964 I received an academic scholarship. When I graduated in 1968 the MINIMUM standard for ADMISSION was what had PREVIOUSLY been considered worthy of a scholarship. I do not mean to play the devil’s advocate, but please consider my point.

  • http://adgitadiaries.com/ karmanot

    So true!

  • sword

    My small University Department was threatened with defunding because we were the toughest graders on campus. We ended up adjusting our grading so that we were ‘exactly’ average. We even offered to increase the Departmental grade point average to be the highest: more students taking our classes. But the Academic Vice President declared that doing so would expose the obvious grade manipulations occurring on campus (which was our abortive plan).

  • RobNYNY1957

    Don’t place too much imporantce on anything that Harvey Mansfield says. His incredible superpower is the ability to discern what things are manly and what things are not. Oddly, things he likes are manly, and things he doesn’t like are not. Strange, no?

    https://www.google.com/#q=harvey+mansfield+manly

  • benb

    100,000s–okay, millions—of years of evolution has pretty much given us the same set of biological brain-power hardware. I believe; I just don’t think that we’re all that different (oh, but let me say that my husband is SO MUCH SMARTER than me but..uh, yes Sir—.he’s the exception).

    If that is true, then I would think that what is important is really the application of brain power more than the search for differences which is to say, a person that is motivated to study a subject is probably a better investment by Society than someone who merely tests well in that field.

  • judybrowni

    Including our local California community college: local kids are having difficulty getting the classes they need, new professors can’t get tenure or even a full-time class load. (And community programs like the elder free classes were cut.)

    But the campus landscaping and architecture was upgraded (millions upon millions on that) so the brochures look good for the parents in China paying ten times the tuition.

    They’re serving dried squid in the cafeteria, a local administrator wasn’t the least bit shamefaced when he admitted that the decades of cuts to education had forced him to get money from somewhere, and the wealthy of China and Taiwan and Japan had the bucks to pay.

    So our community college is serving the communities of megabucks makers in Asia, rather than ours.

  • MyrddinWilt

    Doing upper level Shakespeare well is certainly difficult. But the problem is that there is no objective measure of how well the students are performing. So when comparisons are being made between years it is very difficult to know what they mean.

    Grade inflation is rather harder in the engineering or science fields because either the student can build a bridge that stays up or they can’t. The upper level Shakespeare is not subject to objective empirical test in the same way (which is of course why it is hard).

    In my day Oriel College Oxford used to use Engineering of all things as a sink course for the rowers and so did a few other colleges. But that was at the graduate level mostly so it wouldn’t show in grades (the degrees are pass/fail).

  • http://www.rebeccamorn.com/mind BeccaM

    Many schools have ‘easier’ courses in all the disciplines for the jocks — this includes both science and the arts. Maybe not all schools, but a lot of ‘em have both.

    Quite a few science majors — CS, engineering, etc — end up taking those easy arts classes. Similarly, the arts majors often take the easier science courses — because hey, if you’re going into social research, who needs field theory?

    I learned about this dichotomy when I switched majors in college, after three years in Electrical Engineering — and discovering I increasingly hated it. When I switched into a Tech Writing track, I soon discovered all those ‘easy’ arts courses I’d been taking would be replaced by much more challenging ones. And that the only science course I was missing at that point was Biology, which needed only one of the simplest and easiest 101-level classes to satisfy.

  • http://adgitadiaries.com/ karmanot

    YEP

  • https://profiles.google.com/BobMunck/about Bob Munck

    hard science majors would have to spend more than triple the effort

    I felt the same way at first as a physics major at Brown 50 years ago, but came to think that it seemed that way because the liberal arts offered some easier courses that were taken mostly by football and hockey players. Such things just didn’t exist in the sciences and math. My roommates who were liberal arts majors certainly didn’t have it easy; they didn’t take those “gut” courses.

    (I don’t intend this to be anti-athletes; I myself wrestled varsity heavyweight for 2½ years. The Physics Department told me over and over that I wouldn’t be able to do it, and they turned out to be right.)

  • https://profiles.google.com/BobMunck/about Bob Munck

    The analogy to the SATs stinks. The addition of the writing test does not provide for “a new grade above A (800),” but instead is the equivalent of adding a new course. That is obscured by the fact that SAT scores are traditionally added, not averaged. (You would never hear someone who took and got As in four courses, where an A is 4.0, claim to have received a 16.0 gradepoint. Likewise no one talks about getting an average of 765 on the two or three SATs they took.)

  • http://www.rebeccamorn.com/mind BeccaM

    Remember when we used to be idealistic enough to believe a good college education should be free to all Americans who wanted one? The UofC system is a prime example of how far we’ve fallen from those lofty goals.

  • http://adgitadiaries.com/ karmanot

    One of the problems is that the helicopter babies are filling classes now and no matter their incompetence, dullness, lack of critical reasoning and inability to concentrate more than fifteen minutes at a stretch, they have been told by parents their whole lives how special and unique are they. Thus, they expect to be coddled and catered to and are shocked when their mediocre efforts result in a C- ( a grade I suspect is more of an act of mercy than not). The other problem is the corporatization of universities and the decline of managerial professionals actually experienced in classroom teaching. The University of California is typical in this decline. They charge a small fortune for foreign students to attend and inflate grades to keep the cash rolling into the coffers. This is especially true of the sciences and the degradation of standards when many of these students cannot competently compose essays even remotely readable or acceptable by professional standards. Yet, they can send home A-’s to parents in Dubai or China.

  • Monoceros Forth

    Yeah, I can tell.

  • http://www.americablog.com/ Naja pallida

    Like so many things, it all comes back around to the profit. Even public universities are operated entirely based on the bottom line, and not by the actual success of their graduates. Actual education gets cut, innovation and creativity is stifled, all in favor of shuffling students through the machine that has essentially become little more than a filter for corporate HR departments.

    When I’m hiring, I’ve always had better luck going with people with less education but more real experience, than anyone straight out of college. The last three people I’ve had to deal with who were fresh out of college and on their first “real” job were all blithering idiots who couldn’t find their own ass if they were given a map and a compass. And it wasn’t even possible to adequately retrain them in a cost-effective manner, because they were expecting to just have everything handed to them. It was like trying to nail Jell-O to a wall, nothing stuck.

    Not to say this applies to everyone, but I really don’t think colleges are doing anyone any favors by churning out people who have a piece of paper called a diploma, but not much actual education to show for it.

  • beergoggles

    I also think it’s how some of us are wired. History has always been my weakest subject because I just cannot remember dates. It’s not just old history either, I can’t even associate actual dates with events in the recent past. I’ve thrown out my back at work and when I had to file insurance forms a month later I couldn’t remember what day it happened; I had to go into our HR system to find the day on which I left work early.

  • http://adgitadiaries.com/ karmanot

    If that is a Harvard version of an equation you have my sympathies.

  • http://adgitadiaries.com/ karmanot

    I couldn’t agree more! And quite frankly, wouldn’t send my dog to Harvard.

  • beergoggles

    effort != smarts

  • mirror

    I think I read about this in Time or Newsweek recently, and 20 years ago.

    Is the purpose of a college education to assist employers to separate the wheat from the chaff – a glorified job training and employer vetting process?

    Are the undeserving lazy bachelor degree holders stealing the good graduate fellowships under false pretenses?

  • Monoceros Forth

    When I went to Harvard over 25 years ago, all us hard science majors would have to spend more than triple the effort to get the same grade we could pull in econ, psych, lit or history courses.

    I can’t speak for Harvard. But having a hard science degree (chemistry from the University of Washington) and a degree in the humanities (Classics from SDSU) I dispute your tendentious notion that your science degree required three times the smarts as the liberal arts degree. You’ve got no freaking clue how hard that Classics degree was, mister.

  • Monoceros Forth

    Surely a more important factor in the devaluation of a college degree is that really it’s become a mere convenience for human-resource drones to filter out job applicants, even if they applying for a job that really requires no college education?

  • http://www.rebeccamorn.com/mind BeccaM

    This has been happening for a while now — over the decades, really, as students are increasingly expected by institutions of higher learning and by employers to have spotless transcripts and 4.0 GPAs. And, more importantly, as teachers, instructors, and professors have been increasingly had their performance assessed by the grades of their students.

    As a consequence, students try as much as possible for the “easy As” and teachers have that constant unrelenting pressure each year to give out grades just a little higher than the year before, regardless of actual student performance.

    It’s a self-reinforcing feedback loop, and it’s been getting worse for the last several decades, as we here in America care more about a number on a piece of paper and not about the actual proficiency, aptitudes, or accomplishments of students or their teachers.

  • http://AMERICAblog.com/ John Aravosis

    Yes and no. Some of my most difficult classes were the sciences, even though I was good in science. Organic chem was a nightmare, and finally convinced me to drop my dream of become a researcher. But I’d challenge an engineer to take an upper level Shakespeare course or poetry analysis course. I would agree, however, that when it comes to freshmen and sophomore year especially, my science and math classes were much harder than my English classes. Though in High School they weren’t. I was in the honors program for my classes in high school, and my English class was just as hard, because the teacher was a bear. I’d have to think that, depending what job you’re looking at, someone is going to look at a EE with a B+ average and me as an English major with a B+ average and, while they’d have respect for both of us, they’d still have a tad more respect for the electrical engineer in terms of the difficulty of the degree program.

  • UncleBucky

    A, B, C, D, F (+’s and -’s don’t count in many systems, except as an informal grade)

    No one wants an F or D and if they are getting this they will withdraw from the class, so this is the reality.

    A, B, C.

    Some institutions allow re-dos, so there are very few C’s when all is said and done.

    A, B.

    B’s are good, but A’s are better and remove the chance of a teacher being harmed by a student.

    A.

    See? It’s a NO-GRADING SYSTEM.

    I recommend a numerical grading system, either from 0-100 or 0-20.

    Therefore a teacher could give from 19 down to 16, and it still be a good grade and harder to argue with. Better yet, 99 down to 87 is still a good grade, and hard to argue with.

    When will we get smart again in US education? Oh, I’m gonna get a B for this question. I’ll just quit the class, John.

  • MyrddinWilt

    It is rather hard to avoid objective comparisons in science and engineering.

    One factor that is certainly causing grades to rise at Harvard is that they are getting much better students these days. They still have affirmative action for the rich through the legacies scheme but there are plenty of legacies whose parents were not legacies. So affirmative action could get a doofus like Bush II in to Harvard in the 60s or 70s but it doesn’t work these days for his own kids.

    You would expect grades to rise taking a third of your students from the children of achievers rather than the children of people who were merely rich and well connected.

    There is also a much greater competition for places at the elite colleges. They are not doubling the number of MITs or Stanfords but the number of students trying to get in has more than doubled.

    What we should see is the grades at the elite universities rising and those at the other schools falling. But that isn’t the case of course.

  • beergoggles

    When I went to Harvard over 25 years ago, all us hard science majors would have to spend more than triple the effort to get the same grade we could pull in econ, psych, lit or history courses. We’d have to repeat labs 4 or 5 times till we got a perfect result and lab report. We’d have to get perfect handins for homework. Making deans list as a chem/bio major was an actual achievement. So 25 years ago we all knew how easy As were to earn as long as you weren’t majoring in a hard science. I find it very hard to believe that has changed since the article doesn’t indicate whether they measured across different subjects.

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