In American post-secondary education, performance is measured numerically. The better a student’s performance, the higher her grades.
According to the work of Stuart Rojstaczer and Christopher Healy, today’s students are receiving higher grades than ever before. Some may interpret this as a sign that American college students are smarter than previous generations. This, however, isn’t necessarily the case.
Grade inflation — awarding better grades for the same work — is an issue raised both by Harvard professors and high school teachers. Rojstaczer’s research suggests that the artificial rise in grades is a problem that is common throughout American colleges. By compiling GPA data from over 200 universities, he was able to track grade distribution over time and found that, in 2008, 43 percent of all grades awarded were A’s, an increase of 12 percent from 1988. What’s more, the average GPA across public and private colleges in 1991–1992 was 2.93, but it had risen to 3.11 by 2006–2007.
It's a misreading to claim that the gradual, yet consistent, grade increases are a function of higher student achievement. According to the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy, which compared literacy levels among adults in 1992 and again in 2003, there was no significant change in competence levels. And that’s not all. A 2012 report published by the National Center for Education Statistics noted that SAT scores in critical reading, writing, and math have dropped each year between 2004 and 2012.
Not only are grades going up, but students are also dedicating less time to their schoolwork. In a 2010 study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, Philip Babcock of the University of California, Santa Barbara and Mindy Marks of UC Riverside found that, in 1963, full-time college students devoted nearly 40 hours per week to class time and studying, which, in 2003, dropped to approximately 27 hours weekly.
When taken together, grade inflation represents an upsetting trend. American students are being awarded more and more A’s that they don’t necessarily deserve.
The Causes of Grade Inflation
It’s unclear what specifically leads professors to artificially inflate grades; perhaps our outcomes-based society has something to do with it. Professors at Brown University suggested in the Brown Daily Herald that it may have to do with students expecting they will achieve the same kinds of grades they did in high school, or professors vying for positive student evaluations. In all likelihood, grade inflation is caused by a combination of factors.
Researchers in a 2013 study conducted at the University of North Texas found correlations between certain types of courses and higher grade inflation. While they observed that smaller classes and subjects that take a more qualitative approach, such as art, English, and music, have higher average grades, they did not believe that these patterns in and of themsleves were responsible for grade inflation. The main factors that led to the higher assessments, the researchers concluded, were “time trend” and individual instructor differences.
Time trend refers to university-scale, large factors, such as competing for students nationwide. The researchers concluded that, at UNT, this variable is largely responsible for grade inflation by causing the university to report high grades as it competes for top students or funding. As for individual instructor differences, the researchers believe that many professors may be motivated to give higher grades because student evaluation scores are considered when the university contemplates tenures or promotions.
The Effects of Grade Inflation
Like the causes of grade inflation, the effects on students are uncertain. According to Babcock, the fact that students are spending less time on schoolwork now than in past years has roots in underserved grades. In an op-ed published in The New York Times, he writes: “Most of us in higher education believe that the skills that are truly worth acquiring involve hard work. Put simply, thinking requires effort. If colleges no longer require this kind of effort, how could students hope to acquire these skills and how could colleges hope to instill them?”
Additionally, grade inflation may mislead students about their own strengths. Students who receive an A in a class are assumed to have reached a level of mastery. When an A is given without this mastery, however, the individual may develop an inaccurate assessment of her own skills. Of course, this misperception isn’t a problem only for undergraduates, but is also one for potential graduate schools and employers.
Read our expert article about whether college GPA matters to employers.
What Can Be Done About It
Some universities are taking an active role in trying to curb grade inflation. One college in particular, Reed College in Portland, Oregon, has put policies in place to ensure fixed standards. According to the school’s website, the average GPA has “increased by less than 0.2 of a grade point in the past 30 years.”
Kevin Myers, the Director of Communications at Reed, attributes this to the way grades are reported at the school. “At the end of the semester, faculty members report grades to the registrar and not to the students. The only time a student would know his or her GPA is if they’re below a 2.5.”
In place of grades on any given assignment, students are provided substantive written feedback. Professors emphasize growth and the fact that learning is a process, says Myers. As a result, students are focused on the learning that takes place within the classroom above all else.
Of course, this model demands a low faculty to student ratio (10:1 at Reed) — something large universities, or public high schools for that matter, do not have the liberty of providing. With grades on the rise and little support for discouraging this inflation, schools and teachers are left wondering what truly can be done to ensure a student’s transcript accurately reflects her abilities.
Andersen, Travis, Jacques , Nicholas, and Feathers, Todd. "Harvard Professor Raises Concerns about Grade Inflation." BostonGlobe.com. The Boston Globe, 4 Dec. 2013. Web. 16 Feb. 2015. Retrieved from The Boston Globe
"Average Prose, Document and Quantitive Literacy Scores of Adults: 1992 and 2003." National Assessment of Adult Literacy. National Center for Education Statistics, n.d. Web. Retrieved from National Center for Education Statistics
Babcock, Philip. "An F in Student Effort." An F in Student Effort. The New York Times, 31 Mar. 2011. Web. Retrieved from The New York Times
Babcock, Philip, and Marks, Mindy. "THE FALLING TIME COST OF COLLEGE: EVIDENCE FROM HALF A CENTURY OF TIME USE DATA." NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH (n.d.): n. pag. Apr. 2010. Web. National Bureau of Economic Research
"Grades at Reed." Reed College – Office of the Registrar. 17 Nov. 2014. Web. Retrieved from Reed College
Fighting grade inflation: A cause without a rebel. (2014, March 11). Retrieved March 3, 2015, from Brown Daily Herald
Jewell, R. Todd, Michael A. Mcpherson, and Margie A. Tieslau. "Whose Fault Is It? Assigning Blame for Grade Inflation in Higher Education." Applied Economics 45.9 (2013): 1185-200. Department of Economics, University of North Texas, 3 Feb. 2013. Web. Retrieved from University of North Texas
Myers, Kevin. Director of communications at Reed College. Phone interview, February 10, 2015.
Rojstaczer, Stuart. "National Trends in Grade Inflation, American Colleges and Universities." National Trends in Grade Inflation, American Colleges and Universities. N.p., 10 Mar. 2009. Web. 13 Feb. 2015. Retrieved from Grade Inflation