Grade Inflation

In the September/October 2013 Yale Alumni Magazine, an article, ‘Grade Expectations,’ notes that in 1963 10% of the grades given by Yale College were As; today’ 62% are.

This phenomenon is not, by any measure, limited to Yale. Across all campuses, 43% of the letter grades awarded were As. Grade inflation is so rampant that a former Duke Professor of geophysics, Stuart Rojstaczer, created a website, and is now on the frontlines of battling this academic cancer. If you visit the site, you’ll actually see an extensive list of colleges. Click on one and you’ll find the average GPA of the undergraduates by year. At Harvard, 2005 average GPA 3.45, 1963, 2.7; Carleton 2004, 3.42, 1985, 3.05; Dartmouth 2007, 3.42, 1963, 2.58; UC Berkeley 2007: 3.25, 1963, 2.54. At Brown University, this recent year, nearly 2/3s of the letter grades given were As.

What makes grade inflation particularly pernicious is that it tends to rob students of motivation. When assured of getting an A, many become lax in their preparation for classes. Usually the rule of thumb is for every hour in class, a student should be studying 2-3 hours outside of class. To the contrary, many students are spending fewer than 10 hours a week studying. This is less than half of the time students spent studying 40 years ago. In some schools, surveys indicate that students spend more time drinking than studying.

Worse, when schools succumb to grade inflation it becomes difficult to impossible to differentiate student performances and capabilities. Companies that are recruiting on a campus cannot rely on grades as meaningful criteria for evaluating candidates.

Grade inflation began in earnest during the late 60s when students who flunked out found themselves in Vietnam; consequently, teachers became increasingly lenient with their grading. For about a decade following the Vietnam era, grades gradually declined. Then, towards the end of the 70’s running right through to the present, grades began their inexorable climb to current levels.

All sorts of claims are made about the causes of grade inflation. One is that the quality of the students has increased dramatically over the years. English professor Leslie Brisman at Yale mentioned, “I can think back 40 years to students I thought of as ‘gentlemen’s-C types. I don’t have any of those now.” Possibly not, but there are a number of other claims: the school’s interest in enhancing students’ graduate school prospects, the effect of student evaluations (e.g. Rate My Professor), and the improvement of teaching... In any case, no matter the cause, grade inflation rages on. 

Dealing with grade inflation is a lot like dealing with alcoholism. First the institution has to admit there is a problem, and then it needs to begin discussing ways to pursue a solution to reinstate solid measures of academic excellence. Such schools as Princeton, Wellesley, Reed, and CSU Fullerton (which, by the way, had a drop in GPA of 0.10 over a 30-year period) have made concerted efforts to keep grade inflation under control. Yale is in the midst of trying to resolve its grade inflation. Several proposals that aroused criticism among the faculty included supplanting letter grades with a scale of 60-100, and  incorporating, as Princeton has, a grading curve: 35% in the 90-100 range; 40% in the 80-89 range; 20% in the 70-79% range; and 4-5% in the 60-69 range; with 1% failing.

Implementing such far-reaching changes that affect the very heart and soul of the university is not an easy task.  Dean Nancy Malkiel at Princeton, when asked why so few schools followed Princeton’s lead (and its grading curves), responded, “Because it’s hard work. You have to persuade the faculty that it’s important to do the work.”

Grades are, for all intents and purposes, a charade: they can be inflated, deflated, or changed into numbers. The key role grades should play is to inspire an insatiable curiosity that feeds on knowledge and searches for truth. Using grades to recognize superior performance tends to attract this result. Such schools as RPI, Princeton, Boston University, VCU, Purdue, Reed, Harvey Mudd, and Auburn control their grading; it’s an effective way to nurture academic excellence.