An Empirical Examination of the Phenomenon of Grade Inflation in Higher Education: A Focus of Grade Divergence between Business and Other Fields of Study

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ABSTRACT

This study examined the level of grade inflation experienced by college graduate cohorts between two time periods: 1993 and 2000. Research emphasis was centered upon grade inflation of graduates in business and compared to eleven other academic fields of study. The data for this study originated from the Baccalaureate and Beyond Longitudinal Study (B&B) series conducted by the National Center for Educational Statistics. Through independent sample t-tests, the results showed significant grade inflation in the GPA of college graduates had occurred in the interim between these two time periods. Specifically, it was found that cumulative and within major GPAs had increased across all twelve fields of study at means of 0.23 and 0.21 grade points, respectively. One-way analysis of variance (ANOVA) procedures also indicated that while grade inflation did occur within each of the twelve academic fields of study chosen for this study, some fields experienced a disproportionate rate of grade inflation in relation to the other fields. Post-hoc tests revealed that graduates from the business field experienced grade inflation that was significantly different than several other fields of study. Notably, the grade inflation level within major GPA from business graduates was higher than graduates in engineering, life sciences, mathematics, and physical sciences but less than education and professional fields. The level of grade inflation within cumulative GPA of business graduates was found to be less than graduates in health, life sciences, mathematics, and physical sciences but greater than graduates in professional fields of study.

INTRODUCTION

Academic achievement as a research topic is prevalent within the existing literature on higher education in the United States. The most common measurement of academic achievement is provided through the assignment of some form of grading or marking system (Basinger, 1997; Betts, 1995). Colleges and universities almost universally assess student academic achievement through an administrative policy whereby faculty members assign a letter or numerical grade for individual courses to students (Grove & Wasserman, 2004; Iyasere, 1984). Administrators in turn utilize the grades assigned by faculty members and convert them to a scale commonly referred to as a quality point or grade point average (GPA) to create a measure of academic success (Murray & Wren, 2003; Riley, Checca, Singer, & Worthington, 1994).

According to Agnew (1995) and Caulkins, Larkey, and Wei (1996), GPA is the dominant measure of student quality in all levels of education within the United States, specifically institutions of higher education. The most common scale of GPA is administered upon the four-point scale, with a "perfect" GPA being defined by a 4.0. Final GPAs are a key component in shaping college graduates' educational and career paths through several methods, including acceptance into graduate and professional institutions, academic scholarships, financial aid, and desirable employment in the corporate world (Caulkins, Larkey, & Wei, 1996; Freeman, 1999; Pope & Ma, 2004; Wright & Palmer, 1994). Because excellent grades are an outcome sought by most students in higher education, the pressure to both earn these grades by students and to provide them by faculty has become immense (Birk, 2000; Goldman, Schmidt, Hewitt, & Fisher, 1974). While the importance of GPA has been exacerbated in recent years, Mannello (1964) exemplifed the importance college students place upon grades over four decades ago by noting that "students have a neurotic fixation on grades" (p. 328). The trend whereby the overall grades of college graduates has continued to increase at a swift rate is often referred to as grade inflation.

One of the aspects of grade inflation that has received less attention and dedicated research is that grade inflation has not occurred unilaterally across various academic disciplines and individual colleges within postsecondary institutions (Becker, 1997; Shea, 1994). …