For this post, I will present and analyze the abundant evidence of grade inflation that has occurred in American universities over the past few decades--evidence that is based on numerous articles written by journalists and a growing body of academic research. Then I will show how this trend harms both students and faculty, eroding the quality of education.
If you are a student of mine who is reading this blog because you are disappointed in the grade you earned, I contend that your frustration stems less from my grading policies, though this may be part of it, but more from the little-discussed fact that you have grown up and gone to school in an environment of persistent and seemingly irreversible grade inflation. Grade inflation is the gradual rise in average grades earned over time without a commensurate rise in performance. Scholars have located the start of this trend in the late-1960s, when professors purportedly began giving out higher grades to keep students out of the Vietnam War. Grade inflation abated somewhat in the 1970s, but began rising again in the 1980s, where it has continued until this day. We see grade inflation when most students in a class earn an A, A-, B+, or the occasional B. In the field of economics, price inflation generally occurs when more and more dollars chase the same amounts of goods and services. Prices rise because the dollar has lost its value and the dollar can lose its value if there is a sudden spike in the number of them in circulation. So just as price inflation often corresponds to a devaluation of the currency, grade inflation corresponds to a devaluation of student performance.
More and more studies are documenting the realities of grade inflation. It is most observable at the Ivy League schools, where exorbitantly high tuition comes with the expectation of higher grades. The Boston Globe reported that in 1950, about fifteen percent of Harvard students received a grade of B+ or better, whereas in 2007, more than half of all Harvard grades were in the A range. According to Rosovsky and Hartley, between 1960 and 1997, average collegiate grades increased nationally from a 3.07 GPA to a 3.34. Gradeinflation.com has datasets that show these statistics. If trends continue, virtually every college student will get an “A” by the mid-21st century and the average GPA will approach 3.8, which is higher than my own undergraduate GPA. One study of the CSU and UC systems, where I have spent over fifteen years as a student and faculty member, showed grades inflating at about forty percent of the 32 schools surveyed (9 branches of the University of California and 23 CSU branches). A small percentage of these schools were actually deflating grades while at a larger number of schools, grades had stayed about the same. The study, which analyzed grades between 2009 and 2013, reported an average GPA at UC campuses of 3.03 while the average GPA at the CSUs was 2.93.
A rise in grades would be acceptable if it reflected a rise in student performance. But if anything, the data suggest that performance has been declining. American millenials, when judged against their peers in other countries, have performed quite badly in literacy, technical skills, and math skills. This is true even for those with advanced graduate degrees. And while SAT scores and the average number of hours per week that students spend studying outside of class has decreased, enrollment in remedial courses has increased. All of these metrics come with important caveats, of course. For as long as I can remember, there has been a heated debate as to what SATs actually measure. Like any standardized test, SAT scores are not by any means the final word on “aptitude,” as the abbreviation would suggest, let alone intelligence. Students may be studying less outside of class because the internet allows for fewer trips to the library and higher tuition has forced students to take up more of their time working rather than studying. And more remedial classes could be a natural consequence of allowing greater numbers of students access to higher education.
But as a growing chorus of professors are arguing, grade inflation is harming both students and faculty. It harms students because it packs a wide range of student performance and achievement into a narrow range of grade distribution. Let’s say 80% of students in a class receive a B+, A-, or A. This would be an example of what is known as grade compression (sometimes scholars distinguish between grade inflation and grade compression but I would prefer to view them as part of the same phenomenon). As grade compression occurs, we are less able to parse out and differentiate the truly exceptional work from work that is only slightly above average. This devalues hard work. It rewards the underachievers and punishes high-performing students. If a professor gives an A- to a person who slacked off most of the term but managed to put together a strong effort on only one exam without truly internalizing the material, and yet at the same time gives an A to the person who has performed extraordinarily well, the exceptional student is not rewarded in a manner commensurate with his/her effort. Getting a B+ or an A-, moreover, as I said in my previous post, doesn’t motivate students to do better. As one student at Princeton University commented, “if I get the same grade for my very best work that I get for work that is not my very best, I’m less motivated to try to stretch as far as I can.”
The late UCSB economist, Philip Babcock, in a 2010 essay, wrote that average study time would be about 50% lower in class in which the average grade expected was an “A” compared to the same course taught by the same instructor in which the average grade expected was a “C.” To rephrase, if professors gave lower grades throughout the term, students would make the natural adjustment of studying harder. And to the extent that more study leads to more learning—at least up until a certain saturation point—we see, therefore, that passing out lower grades will actually lead to more learning. And that’s what we want, right? For what else is the job of a university, and the professors who work there, than to provide an environment in which the student learns the most?
An additional harm to students wrought by grade inflation comes in the form of leading students into fields for which they are ill suited. By giving out higher grades, colleges give an implicit endorsement to employers that a given student would make a strong candidate for a position. The student who shows up late, talks and texts in class, and doesn’t do any of the reading—but yet pulls off a B+ because the professor is a pushover—may be in for a rude awakening upon entering the workforce. As a professor in the humanities, I think that there is too much emphasis on the utilitarian and vocational aspect of the modern university system. I would much rather have students pursue learning for its own sake. Having that said, we cannot ignore that there is a vocational and career-preparing element in college, and this necessarily places at least some burden on professors to adequately prepare students. Call me a disciplinarian or old-fashioned if you wish, but I personally believe that we do students no favors for what lies ahead by being too lenient.
Now, how does grade inflation harm faculty? In many ways. Let’s say, in a hypothetical example, that a philosophy department has a close-knit group of faculty who all give out an average grade of C+. Yet, the number of philosophy majors is down post-2008, as are the number of philosophy degrees that the university graduates (this recent decline in humanities majors has many causes but let’s save that discussion for another time). To attract more philosophy majors, some professors in the department start upping their grades, from around a B- average, and later, to a B. At first, out of principle, not everyone in the department goes along. But a problem develops when students, who generally prefer professors who grade easily, start flocking to the classes where one can earn an “easy A.” This means the professors who wish to keep high standards see declining enrollment. If they are contingent faculty, as most professors are nowadays, they risk losing their classes when faced with consistently declining enrollment. Pressure, much of it economically driven, begins to mount from above. No department chair or dean ever says explicitly to a professor that they must inflate grades to hold onto their jobs, but the message, however subtle, is clear: there is an easy and convenient way to respond to this pressure that entails the least resistance. And that way is to raise grades. It is no surprise that grade inflation has taken place in the very same years that higher education has taken a marked turn toward relying on non-tenured, contingent faculty. Professors who fear for their jobs will raise grades to keep students happy. Happy students make for happy administrators and happy parents. And contingent faculty now comprise 70-75% of college instructors in the United States compared to less than 30% in the 1970s. Thus, inflated grades are at least partially result of labor trends in the academy and the pressure of keeping enrollment numbers high. Professors have to compete for attracting customers…oh, I’m sorry, you’ll have to excuse me…did I say customers? That must have been a slip. I meant to say students! The sad fact of the matter is that grades are a factor in determining whether a professor is popular. And a professor’s popularity will influence enrollment numbers, the number of majors, whether that professor gets hired again to teach the same class, funding, and new tenure-track hires in that department.
To be clear, required classes may mitigate some of the most harmful effects of this phenomenon, and what I have described above is not something I experience at my current places of employment. Nonetheless, I’ve taught at six colleges and some are better than others at respecting their professors’ grading policies. And this is not something I just conjured up on my own. I’ve not only heard about it through the grapevine, but have read numerous articles on the subject. In short, the student-as-customer model poses a fundamental threat to academic integrity. If one professor in a department starts to inflate grades, other professors may soon find themselves under pressure to do the same. Rarely, if ever, does the pressure go in the opposite direction. In other words, a hard grader almost never compels other professors to be hard, unless there is a concerted effort on the part of the institution, collectively speaking, to reverse grade inflation, as Princeton once did.
Here is the next post in this series.
 Talia Bar, Vrinda Kadiyali, and Asaf Zussman, “Grade Information and Grade Inflation: The Cornell Experiment,” Journal of Economic Perspectives 23, no. 3 (Summer 2009): 93-108.
 William M. Abbott, “The Politics of Grade Inflation: A Case Study,” Change (January/February 2008): 33.
 Ibid., 32-37; Steven Pressman, “The Economics of Grade Inflation,” Challenge 50, no. 5 (Septemer/October 2007): 94.
 Abbott, “The Politics of Grade Inflation: A Case Study,” 36.