Identifying Grade Inflation at an Open-Admissions Institution

By Mc Spirit, Stephanie; Jones, Kirk et al. | College Student Journal, June 2000 | Go to article overview

Identifying Grade Inflation at an Open-Admissions Institution


Mc Spirit, Stephanie, Jones, Kirk, Chapman, Ann, Kopacz, Paula, College Student Journal


This paper evolved from the work of an Ad Hoc Committee to study the problem of grade inflation at Eastern Kentucky University. As members of the Ad Hoc Committee on Grade Inflation, the authors would like to acknowledge Robert Kustra, President of Eastern Kentucky University and Karen Janssen, 1998/1999 Chair of the Faculty Senate, each of whom took seriously our initial report on grade inflation and acted to carry out several institutional changes based on our recommendations. The authors would also like to thank Karen Carey, Office of Institutional Research, Aaron Thompson, Eastern Kentucky University and Scott Hunt, Department of Sociology, University of Kentucky, each of whom provided constructive comment on earlier drafts.

The study reported in this article examined the extent of grade inflation at Eastern Kentucky University, a comprehensive, open-enrollment university located in the foothills of Appalachia. In examining grade inflation, the study used a sample of regular, matriculated, first time, full-time entering freshmen, and tracked their performance through their college career. Holding sample characteristics constant across time allowed us to control for several outside influences that might otherwise explain (or confound) an identified increase in grades. Based on an analysis of GPA at graduation for this cohort, regression results identified a .02 annual rise in GPA upon graduation since 1983.

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Although the media has provided ample coverage of grade inflation at selective colleges and elite institutions, little attention has been given to grade inflation within public universities (Moore, 1996). A review of newspaper articles suggests that the steady rise in the number of A and B grades and the steady climb in college grade point average (GPA) is an issue only at top tier institutions (see Archibold, 1998; Gose, 1997; Reibstein and King, 1994; Shea, 1994; Sowell, 1994; Strauss, 1997). However, grade inflation is also a concern at less selective colleges and universities (Beaver, 1997; Franklin, 1991; Van Allen, 1990).

Eastern Kentucky University (EKU) is a regional university with an annual enrollment of approximately 13,000 undergraduates and relatively open admissions criteria (Beaver, 1997, p.5). By focusing our analysis on grade trends at this kind of institution, we add to the limited literature on grade inflation at less selective colleges and universities.

Overview

In examining the extent of grade inflation, we looked at trends in graduation GPA's across a select body of college students. At any open-admissions institution there is broad range in age, cumulative life experiences, and college preparation levels within the student body. This rich diversity often makes the classroom an exciting place, but each of these conditions can be a confounding influence in identifying the amount of grade increase that is attributable to grade inflation. For example, an influx over the years in older, presumably more-serious college students might lead to a cumulative rise in grade point average. In this case, such an increase in GPA is not necessarily due to some inflationary trend in college grading, but rather might reflect the overall college performance of a maturing college cohort (Kwon, Kendig and Bae, 1997, pp.52-53; Olsen, 1997, p.10). In order to control for this condition, our analysis of grade inflation is based on a sample of traditional students that entered the University as full-time ([greater than or equal to] 12 credits) traditional freshmen (entering age = 18.4, S.E.=.06). The age characteristics of our sample were held constant over time. This allowed the researchers to examine grade increases while controlling for age and maturity changes in the student population.

Another variable is an increase in the number of students just "trying out" college and not entirely serious about obtaining a college degree. The grades of these students might depress an aggregate GPA, thus masking some otherwise identifiable inflationary trend in grading. …

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