Grade Inflation: The Underlying Problem Plaguing our Universities

A_Plus_BlogJust about everyone and their brother knows that our current academic system is imperfect. The problems that are typically discussed range from the difficulty of acceptance into decent schools to the increasing cost of education that causes too much student debt. Would it surprise you to hear that aside from these worries, I think we have a bigger problem on our hands? Putting it in the simplest of terms, I believe colleges across the United States are suffering from a plague I call grade inflation and this has been going on for decades. This problem ought to be addressed so that we are creating the best and brightest college graduates to continue our country’s economic and intellectual growth.

Grade inflation is defined on dictionary.com as “the awarding of higher grades than students deserve either to maintain a school’s academic reputation or as a result of diminished teacher expectations.” With this definition, it might be hard to believe that all colleges would be prone to give higher grades just to improve their reputation. Perhaps the universities least likely to give higher grades to improve their reputation would be ivy leagues as their reputations are already so high, right?

Wrong.

Jay M. Harris, the Dean of Undergraduate Education at Harvard College (yes, I said THE Harvard college), was quoted to say,

“The median grade in Harvard College is indeed an A-. The most frequently awarded grade in Harvard College is actually a straight A.”

The Dean dropped this “bomb” at the monthly Arts and Sciences faculty meeting last December, sparking discussion about what can be done to fix this “embarrassing” problem. While many faculty members were surprised by this extensive grade inflation, The Harvard Crimson reported grade inflation as a “serious problem” about 12 years prior to this staff meeting. Gradeinflation.com has been tracking the changes in grades both in private and public universities over the past two decades.

As the graphs on gradeinflation.com point out, Harvard is not alone in dealing with this problem and many other top-ranked schools are dealing with or have dealt with it, including Princeton University and Duke University. But, the question remains; if this problem has been around for at least a decade, why was the Harvard faculty so surprised that this extensive grade inflation has been going on?

To put it simply, administrations have been ignoring the problem because it is not immediately obvious why grade inflation is a bad thing. If everyone is receiving higher grades, making them look smarter to employers, grade inflation must be doing some good.

But, if everyone looks good to employers, how are employers supposed to differentiate one candidate from another academically? Let me give you a scenario. Let’s say we have student A and student B. Both students are taking an upper-level statistics course at Ohio State. Student A studies very hard for this class and genuinely understands the material, and his grade shows it as he got a 97% on his midterm. Student B does not spend as much time as he should studying the material and received an 85% on the midterm. Luckily for Student B, there are many other students in this class that are struggling with the material and did much worse on the exam.  The average on the exam was a 65%. The professor decided to “curve” the grades for the exam, giving Student B an A on his exam too. Now, both Student A and Student B receive A’s in the class, however Student A clearly understood the material better. With both students receiving the same grade, there is no way to differentiate that Student A would perhaps make a better statistician than Student B.

Bottom line, grade inflation makes it more difficult to distinguish truly brilliant students from those who are just slightly above average.

When looking at the scenario above, the cause of the grade inflation problem becomes extremely clear. When the professor decided to “curve” everyone’s grades, students’ grades were increased. However, this did not help Student A at all as he had already done extremely well. Adding more points to his grade would not make it look any better on paper. To tackle this problem, perhaps we should revisit the term inflation.

To an economist, inflation is a general increase in ALL prices. How is inflation in the economy solved? The price of everything is raised, including wages. Eventually everything levels off to where they were before, just with higher numbers attached to them. Unfortunately, this can’t happen with our current grading scale because any way you look at it (4.0, A+, 100%), there is a definite cap on grades. Student A’s grades couldn’t be truly inflated just as his classmates’ grades were because he was so close to the 100% cap. Thus, economist Tim Harford believes the term “grade inflation” is misleading. For grades to be truly inflated, the A grades would have to increase to some letter grade that is higher than an A.

Harford proposed the solution of increasing the grade cap. Instead of having the best grade be an A, perhaps the best grade should be an AA. Harford is not the only person offering a solution. In an article from the Chronicle, the author lists a few ways in which universities across the United States have attempted to solve the problem.

For example, Cornell University recognized that they too had a problem with grade inflation and college officials decided that something needed to be done. Cornell decided that by releasing the median grades for a course it gives the students’ grades context. Put simply, if a student got an A in the class but the median grade was an 88%, anyone who is interested can see that this class is not very difficult and that A grade does not mean quite the same thing as a student getting an A in a class that has a median score of a 70%. Unfortunately, this plan did not work for Cornell because students began choosing classes that had high medians, indicating that the class graded easier. With more students choosing these “easier” classes, grades inflated even more.

I mentioned earlier that Princeton had a problem with grade inflation as well. Princeton has had perhaps the most success in deflating grades. They applied somewhat of a bell curve to their grading scale. This means that only a certain percentage of students can receive each grade. They planned to keep the number of students receiving A’s to 35%. While this is not a perfect bell curve (a perfect bell curve would have 15% A’s, 35% B’s, 35% C’s and 15% D’s or F’s), this is a start to controlling the number of people who should be given A’s.

While Princeton has seen success by using this percentage-based system when giving out grades, I am not entirely convinced that this is the answer to our problem. For instance, if a student gets 93% of the points given in a class, he or she should receive an A. However, with Princeton’s system, if more that 35% of students received above a 93%, the student with a 93% might actually receive an A – or B+.

In my opinion, I believe we need to come up with a scale that is not quite as small and ridged as our current 4-point scale. Perhaps we should have a 100-point scale for student’s GPA’s. This 100-point scale would make it much easier when comparing student’s GPA’s because of the scale’s wider range. For example, an 83 on that scale would look much different that a 90.  This solution is not perfect but I think it sparks an idea about the first step in erasing this problem is to develop a completely new grading scale.

To truly go about solving the problems that grade inflation causes, however, we cannot just wait for each university in the United States to make little changes on their own. As you have seen, this does not work. To solve the problem of grade inflation once and for all, the United States government, collegiate administrations and the college students need to act as a unified front to come up with a scale that successfully measures someone’s knowledge of the subject. The first step to this dream is to spread the word about grade inflation and convince students and administrators that this problem needs to be addressed ASAP.

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