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 graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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