At the end of the semester, students think about vacation and professors think about grades. I love every part of the university experience except grading. While the stress of grading has not changed, the average grade has. Grades have experienced inflation, with the average college grade rising steadily over time.
There have been lots of suggestions on why grade inflation has occurred. Some people suggest students are better prepared. Others suggest professors’ standards have declined. One reason that I have not seen suggested that might be a possibility is the rising cost of tuition. The figure below shows the total yearly amount paid after financial aid at the average private college for tuition, room and board. The figure is adjusted for inflation and shows that the inflation adjusted price of college does not change much until early 1980s. Then it more than doubles!
Why is this figure important? When college was cheap, flunking a student or giving them a low grade was not expensive. Flunking a student today causes them to incur a large cost. A student who gets no financial aid at a private college and flunks out at the end of their freshman year loses over $50,000! The $50,000 is just out of pocket expenses and doesn’t include their opportunity costs. It might be that professors realize that as college gets more expensive, people are expecting some measurable return on their investment and one measurable return is a higher grade.
I have been pondering how to test if rising tuition is one of the causes of grade inflation but have not come up with any ideas where data exist to test this idea. If you have any thoughts where the data exist let me know.