On Grade Inflation

Grade inflation is rampant at all institutions of higher learning in Connecticut. I’m here to call your attention to the issue, because it’s gotten so bad that grades are meaningless in most disciplines.

I’ll start anecdotally because you really don’t need to do much in the way of research to convince yourself of this phenomenon, though I’ll provide some hard figures too.

Inflation isn’t a regional problem, of course. A friend who taught at Oxford told me it went on there as well, but that it’s worse in America. She was surprised at the outcry when she assigned two A’s and three B’s at the conclusion of her first semester of teaching in a graduate program in New York.

I recall hearing colleagues complain about it in my first week of collegiate teaching in the early 1980s. An Egyptian professor informed me, “A is good—B is bad” and as we all know, C’s don’t count for credit in graduate school. So, there’s pressure on everyone to give and get A’s.

Secondary schools are not immune either. It was a matter of heated debate at the one I taught at in the 1990s.

My father, an ivy-educated chap, complained about it on our commute to class in the 1960s. (He dragged me along, fulfilling his professorial duties of lecturing and babysitting in one fell swoop.) I recall him saying “the Gentleman’s C was invented at Yale,” though later I found this clipping from an 1873 edition of Harvard Magazine in his journals while settling his estate:

The able-bodied C man! He sails swimmingly along.
His philosophy is rosy as a skylark’s matin song.
The light of his ambition is respectably to pass,
And to hold a firm position in the middle of his class.

As a student and later graduate instructor at Columbia, it seemed to me that almost everyone in education got an A. A colleague in the chemistry department broadened my perspective in muttering that the same held true over there. When administration clamped down for a spell, the grade distribution was only broadened with the dispensing of an occasional A-minus or two per section, whereby teaching fellows could save face using discretionary measures to penalize anyone who held positions antithetical to theirs.

I speak autobiographically, as the only two blemishes on my transcript arose from (1) taking issue with a teaching fellow in a course and (2) by an act of our mutual adviser who down-graded me for complaining about the episode in a subsequent course. When I brought this up at his retirement dinner 29 years later, said mentor told me his only intention was to help me get my “priorities straight” in a “teachable moment.”

In fact, at many Tier 1 graduate institutions, the only two grades are DP (Doctoral Pass) or an F. I had to petition for regular letter grades, failing in hindsight to realize I was setting myself up for the A minuses.

According to my cousin, a product of and now clinical professor at Yale Medical School, grades are completely optional in the curriculum. Most students take tests online using a pseudonym (his was Daffy Duck) and get immediate color coded indications (not grades but a range of cold to hot colors—good to bad) instead of scores. Most never get less than green in their first attempt and achieve blue within two tries. Yellows or reds are unheard of. No matter—by his account, “Yale graduates nationally achieve top scores on the medical boards, and besides, who’s going to fritter-away $300,000 and eight years of their life pussy-footing around.”

Yale School of Medicine’s assessment tool actually turns grading on its head. Top-tier medical students tend to be self-learners anyway, so the system is just a means for them to check on their own progress. The real intent is to monitor scores on items requiring multiple attempts, so that corresponding topics may be reported to the instructors as a basis for improving the curriculum and its effects.

At many Tier 2 and 3 schools, pluses and minuses were dispensed with long ago. A registrar once explained to me that he wanted professors to be absolutely certain that an A was an A and a B was a B. No muddling around with gradations! (I’m still deconstructing that.)

Contrary to the phenomenon of the “Asian F”–where anything short of an A amounts to a failure on the student’s part, there is an apparent sense of entitlement among the majority of today’s domestic clientele. Their implicit assumptions are that (1) education is a service industry, (2) faculty are grey-collar workers who are here to serve them, and (3) professors have in fact failed if students do not warrant an “American A.”

Turning from anecdotal whimsy to actual data, Rojstaczer and Healy’s[i] most recent work on the problem confirms all of the above. Two figures in their seminal 2011 study stand-out.

First, the distribution of A’s has trended-up since 1940, to the point where it is by far the most common grade awarded these days:


Second, the skewing is worse at private institutions, further illustrated:


In turning from correlations to causality, let’s cut to the chase in explaining all this. Common sense, historical awareness, and incidental accounts shared by colleagues should suffice.

Notably, the upward trend in occurrences of A’s given in the first figure and the switching-point between private and public institutions evidenced in the second figure coincide with the onset of the Vietnam War. Students and draft dodgers could obtain deferments if they attended school, and colleges benefited financially from burgeoning enrollments by accommodating them and focusing on retention. The liberal, seemingly reactionary outcome of that was padding grades.

My father was sympathetic to doing whatever he could to keep guys with low draft numbers out of harm’s way. He had given me a first-hand account of the horrors he experienced on D-Day. He held marathon office hours for anyone at risk of flunking-out, adjusted his grade-curve formula, and awarded “Prayer C’s” to the least deserving students. I heard this when I was 8 years old. Now at his then comparable 55 years of age, I interpret Rojstaczer and Healy’s graphs in light of it.

Notably, my British friend did not get tenure in New York, despite a stellar record of research, publication, and grant awards. Being a stern grader contributed to her downfall.

We are now at the tail-end of another war, and it’s a combination of that and the economic crisis which are to blame for grade inflation. As a consequence of World War II, the baby boom resulted in a series of peaks and troughs in the population of school-aged children, and corresponding enrollment fluctuations in colleges. These have been easy to predict, and informed professors have used the data to determine strategic career moves contingent upon the softness of the education space. Faculty are advised to migrate inter-institutionally only when enrollments are trending up, not down.

Today we are in a cycle where the number of school-aged children has been trending downwards precipitously since 2006. An upturn was supposed to begin in 2013, but current birthrates are 18% lower than expected and increases are projected to be delayed until at least 2015. That and the downturn in funding, endowments, ROI, and lower tuition revenues, among other factors, are putting most public and private institutions in a serious bind.

There’s also a paradigm-shift underway with online distance learning programs undermining traditional onsite education. We will witness the demise of many ground-based institutions and departments over the next 5 to 10 years as the result. They are simply not nimble enough to survive the change-over from the medieval model of the university. Public and private schools castigate the “For Profits” in equivocating “education” with “business” and “tuition” with “revenue.” Ironically, the “For Profits” are the ones making enormous enrollment gains in the current economy.

As a consequence, junior faculty are afraid of losing their jobs. They are under pressure to keep the diminishing pool of (paying) students happy. Positive course evaluations and scuttlebutt about their teaching are essential to winning tenure. Declining enrollments and diminishing tuition revenues are leaving departments understaffed. Overworked faculty are looking for ways to lighten their load. This translates into lowering standards and incentivizes grade inflation.

Senior (tenured) faculty are no-less susceptible to the problem. College students avoid difficult majors, and side-step professors who are notorious for hard work and honest grading. This directly effects K-12 education. For instance, there is such a shortage of physics majors that some high schools don’t even offer a course on the subject. By my estimate, 70% of pre-service teachers self-report not pursuing upper grade-level certifications because they don’t feel confident in secondary-level subject areas. When I mentioned the paucity of job opportunities in elementary education a colleague replied, “…yes, but don’t say anything. Do we want to slit our own throats?”

In wrestling with the problem, I’ve turned to the wisdom of Harvey Mansfield, professor of government at Harvard[ii]. Mansfield took a public stand in 2001 with the announcement that he would give two grades on every assignment, one the “real” grade students deserved, and the other an inflated public “ironic” grade that would appear on their transcripts. This ensured that no one would suffer a penalty for taking his class. A feature on this in the The Boston Globe cited Harvard as the “Lake Wobegon of higher education, where all students are above average.” Ninety percent of the Class of 2001 had a GPA of at least a B minus and graduated with honors.[iii]

In the first 27 years of my career, I assigned “real” grades until the end of the semester, and then applied the curve formula to fine tune the results. I felt this would correct for my erring on the side of unrealistic expectations or factors beyond our control such as snow days and Internet outages. I then noticed that it was the decline in student writing ability that had most impacted students’ grades in my courses. That was my epiphany three years ago and I thence adjusted my weighting formula in the categories of syntax and semantics, lightening-up a bit on those scores, commented heavily, and allowed for multiple resubmits.

By this means, the majority of students are now able to obtain an honest A—in the words of John Houseman “…the old fashion way…  They earn it!” Those with legitimate excuses are readily granted an incomplete, and the true slackers self-select out of the system if and inevitably when that grade reverts to an F. Nonetheless, most faculty don’t have the time for this approach. I have to admit, the massive decline in students’ writing ability is killing me. If I ever leave the profession, the cause for my undoing would be the enormous amount of time required to fix writing issues rather than focusing on course content.

As a consequence, the old cliché, “student X is the best I’ve ever had” has no real basis in the GPA, and I never take it seriously in reading recommendations. Just hand the would-be graduate student a piece of paper and a pencil, and ask them to write an essay on the spot along the likes of “What I Did Over Summer Break.” That alone would serve as a good litmus test of their ability. Ironically, a colleague who gave this very exercise reported that the majority of students complained that it was unfair.

May I suggest a task force to address the issue of grade inflation and concomitant implications in Connecticut higher education?

[i] Rojstaczer & Healy (2012). “Where A Is Ordinary: The Evolution of American College and University Grading, 1940–2009,” Teachers College Record.

[ii] …whose views are otherwise antithetical to mine.

[iii] Crimsom Key Society (2010). Inside Harvard, Cambridge, MA. p 69.

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