The Phenomenon of Grade Inflation in Higher Education

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IS GRADE INFLATION REAL?

What is the extent of grade inflation in higher education -- what Yale officially refers to as "upward grade homogenization"? For that matter, does it even exist? Many of us sense that grading is not what it used to be -- that in today's academy, the fear of failing has all but disappeared, and that making dean's list is no longer a pipe dream for quite average students. I -- an above average student (though a bit of a goof-off) from a very high-achieving public high school -- remember the anxieties of my first year or so in college, when no amount of discipline and application seemed to be able to lift me beyond a B in the various calculus, physics, computer science, and chemistry classes that North Carolina State required of its entering science students. I got as many C's as B's, and even an occasional D. Terrifying, and a spur to industry at the same time.

All the data suggest that grades have been inflating over a thirty-year period at American campuses of every variety. Table 1 (from Levine and Cureton's book, When Hope and Fear Collide) shows GPAs as reported by undergraduate students in three different years: 1969, 1976, and 1993. As you can see, the percentage of C's and A's that students received reversed itself. In 1969, 7 percent of all students received grades of A-minus or higher. By 1993, this proportion had risen to 26 percent. In contrast, grades of C or less moved from 25 percent in 1969 to 9 percent in 1993.

Some argue that grade inflation is a phenomenon of the most selective institutions, but not of the vast majority of the colleges and universities. The data I have seen do not support this claim. The Levine and Cureton surveys were of students at every type of institution from two year colleges to research universities, and the data were weighted so as to make sure they reflected the overall composition of American higher education. Furthermore, when one looks at individual institutions that have had the courage to study their grading patterns over the past twenty-five or thirty years, one always finds grade inflation, regardless of the type of institution.

What can be said is that, while grade inflation is universal, Ivy League schools have elevated it to an art form. At Princeton, for example, the median GPA for the class of 1973 was 3.078, while the median GPA for the class of 1997 was 3.422. In 1973, the percent of A-minuses and A's given to students in undergrad courses was 30.7 percent, while in the period for 1992-97 the percentage rose to 42.5 percent, with only 11.6 percent of grades falling below the B range. ("Report of the Faculty Committee on Examinations and Standings on Grading Patterns at Princeton," Princeton University, 5 February 1998.)

At Dartmouth, the average CPA rose from 3.06 to 3.23 from 1968 to 1994, with 44 percent of current grades now registering as A's or A-minuses. ("Dartmouth College Takes A Swipe at Grade Inflation," Chronicle of Higher Education, 16 November 1994, A39.)

At Harvard, 46 percent of the undergraduate grades given during the 1996-97 year were A-minuses and A's, more than double the figure for 1966, which was 22 percent. (Information provided the author by Harvard professor Harvey C. Mansfield.) The percentage of C-pluses and below has fallen from 28 percent in 1966-67 to 9 percent in 1991-92. (Craig Lambert, "Desperately Seeking Summa," Harvard Magazine, May--June 1993, 37.)

Let me mention one other thing the data reveal: Grade inflation has proceeded more rapidly in the humanities than in the natural sciences, in part, no doubt, because of the absolute, objective, and quantifiable measures of student mastery that exist in the sciences. The relative integrity of academic standards in the natural sciences in comparison with the humanities, education, and the social sciences acts as an incentive for students to avoid the sciences in favor of the softer, grade-inflated alternatives. …