When I Was Young, an A Was an A: Grade Inflation in Higher Education

By Vanderslice, Ronna | Phi Kappa Phi Forum, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

When I Was Young, an A Was an A: Grade Inflation in Higher Education


Vanderslice, Ronna, Phi Kappa Phi Forum


People often criticize elementary and secondary schools for their low standards and elevated grades. Political candidates use higher standards in education as a platform for their campaign; yet institutions of higher education cannot deny the statistics: only 10 to 20 percent of all college students receive grades lower than a B-. This figure means that between 80 and 90 percent of all college students receive grades of either A or B (Farley, cited in Sonner). In 1969, 7 percent of all students received grades of A- 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. The pattern, which continues today, reveals an issue that concerns academicians and the general public alike.

One may wonder why this is a problem. For one, employers seem very concerned that good grades on transcripts have very little meaning. It is extremely difficult to differentiate between competent students and incompetent ones by viewing a transcript from most institutions of higher education today. Also, students may be left with an incorrect picture of their own competence. Most importantly, how grades relate to student learning and understanding is not clear. Variety in grading practices across disciplines and between institutions further complicates the question of what exactly an A means.

Universities must initiate reforms that increase standards instead of decreasing them. Even though some educators clearly see the wrong in grade inflation, for others it has become such a routine that universities must be explicit in their plan of remedy for this situation. A head-on approach that has been used lately is to include on student transcripts not only the grade for the class, but also the average grade for all students enrolled in the class. Indiana University, Eastern Kentucky University, and Dartmouth College are institutions that have used some type of indexing system. Harvey Mansfield, a longtime critic of grade inflation, uses a similar approach within his own classroom at Harvard University, giving each student two grades: one for the registrar and the public record, and the other in private. The private grades give students a realistic, useful assessment of how well they did and where they stand in relation to others.

Indiana University also proposed a three-year moratorium on the use of student evaluations in personnel decisions as a method to curb the problem of too many high grades. …

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