Grade inflation runs rampant; no end in sight
Grade inflation has run rampant at American colleges and universities throughout the twentieth century. According to the College’s Director of Institutional Research and Assessment William Wilson, the class of 2010’s grade point average (GPA) of 3.35 stands in stark contrast to the class of 1988’s GPA of 2.91. Because people hotly contest the causes of this phenomenon, its important to account for several possible explanations.
One possible explanation for the increase in grade inflation is the advent of student course evaluations. It is no mystery that students prefer higher grades. In his book, “Excellence Without A Soul,” former dean of Harvard University Harry Lewis writes that “favorable evaluations and higher grades have been shown to go hand in hand.” If a professor receives favorable evaluations, he or she is more likely to receive a promotion or a tenure appointment. As Associate Professor and Chair of the Biology Department Russell Johnson stated, “professors may give higher grades to avoid the negative consequences of not doing so.” Although these evaluations are administered before the College announces final grades, students already have a feel for a professor’s grading style and often known approximately how well they are doing in a course. The Student Government Association (SGA) only demanded such evaluations approximately 20 years ago, proving that this is only a recent factor in the grade inflation trend. Before student evaluations, faculty evaluated each other, and they were therefore less accountable to students and less sensitive to their wishes.
The rising cost of tuition may reflect professor’s increased accountability to students. According to faculty fellow in sociology Pamela Blake, these tuition costs also instill an “I’m the customer sense of entitlement [in students and parents].” Indeed, students and parents alike may believe that they’re not simply paying for an education, but that they’re paying for good grades as well. Since institutions are accountable to their constituents- especially those who contribute to their endowment- it is no wonder that grades have consequently risen.
Students’ demand for higher grades reflects the current competitiveness of the job market and graduate school admissions. A higher GPA gives students a leg up in the selection process. Colleges and universities are thus encouraged to present their students in the most favorable light so as to boost their number of graduate school admissions and career placements.
Academic performance may also be contributing to the trend of grade inflation. Because of the competitive job market and rising tuition costs, students experience more pressure to achieve top grades. Because students are working harder, a larger number of them may be achieving at a level that is consistent with the high grades they receive. This improvement may also be tied into the move toward smaller classes. As Lewis notes in his book, “Every study of grading practices shows that grades are higher in smaller courses, perhaps because students and faculty get to know each other better.” In smaller classes, students are more likely to get feedback from professors and learn how to improve their work, which fosters both progress and interpersonal relationships.
Even so, all such factors are short-term, and do not conclusively explain why this is a long-term rather than a short-term trend. Researchers Stuart Rojstaczer and Christopher Healy collected contemporary grades from over 160 colleges and universities in the United States with a combined enrollment of over 2,000,000 undergraduate students in their study of grade inflation. In their report, “Grading in American Colleges and Universities,” Rojstaczer and Healy concluded that grade inflation has been on the rise since as early as the 1930s. “A nationwide rise in grades over time of roughly 0.1 change in GPA per decade,” is one of the many findings that the report details. There was a slight inflection in the slope at the time of the Vietnam War in the 1960s, as professors awarded higher grades to keep students from failing out of school and therefore made eligible for the draft. Aside from that abberation, however, GPAs have been rising at a relatively steady pace.
This steady increase in GPAs points to the structure of the grading system itself, rather than any one factor. Harriet S. Wiswell and George C. Wiswell Jr. Associate Professor of American Constitutional Law Joseph Reisert states that “this phenomenon is not reflective of any one institution, and data suggests [that] this may be a feature of the ordinal grading system.” Specifically, the increase may reflect a simultaneous increase in the grade-scale categories. Lewis writes, “When there are too many categories, graders tend to use only a few of them –the highest few, in practice.” This means that professors tend to only hand out grades in the A to B range. Furthermore, “the grading scale itself can make inflation more likely because grading requires assigning subjective judgments of quality to fixed categories,” Lewis writes.
Academics also debate about how much this grade inflation truly matters. Some contend that it lowers schools’ standards of excellence, which ultimately disadvantages students in their quest for a quality education. Furthermore, because grade inflation often occurs more in some departments than it does in others, it may be unfair for students of certain majors to receive lower grades than their peers simply because of their area of study. This consequently encourages other departments to raise their grades as well so as to be fair to the students and make them just as likely to receive Latin honors upon graduating.
Solutions for such a problem are experimental at best. One suggestion is to limit the number of As that professors may give out. Princeton University, for example, put down guidelines so that A-range grades only constitute 35 percent of grades in classroom work. Recentering the ordinal system, so that a C is truly at the middle of the spectrum, is yet another proposal. Reed College deemphasizes grades altogether, providing students with access to written reports of their performance, rather than their actual grades. Whether such proposals are worth addressing is subjective, but it is clear that a reversal of the current trend toward higher grades seems to be unlikely at best.