Is Grade Inflation Real?

by Harry on July 26, 2005

I’ve been doing some looking around to find out what the evidence is on grade inflation, specifically in higher education in the US. I’m surprised by two things. First, that there doesn’t seem to be firm evidence of it. (It is interesting that Valen Johnson’s excellent book Grade Inflation: A Crisis in College Education, for example, is not about grade inflation at all, but about grade variation and student evaluations of teaching). Second, that so many people think that there is firm evidence of it. Certainly, it appears that if you ask people — faculty and students — whether there is grade inflation, they believe there is. But that is poor evidence, because the students don’t know anything abut what happened in the past, and the faculty have faulty memories. When you look at grades, it certainly seems that mean grades have been increasing within institutions over the past 25-35 years. The most frequently referred to site is Stuart Rojstaczer’s, which surveys a small number of institutions and finds increases in the mean grade in all of them over both a ten year and a 30 year period (much bigger in the private than in the public institutions). This is what people take to be firm evidence of grade inflation. But it isn’t, and I’m surprised that anyone thinks it is. Here’s why; within the institutions surveyed the students might have been gaining in achievement. Grade inflation consists in higher grades being given for similar quality work, not just higher grades being given. And no-one seems to have any data on the quality of the work being produced now or in the past.

Am I saying that students might have gotten smarter over the period? Well, they might, but that’s not what I’m saying. They might be better prepared for college than before, or, rather, enough of them might be better prepared to outweigh the fact that some of them are less well prepared. My own institution has become distinctly more selective over the past 12 years, and the grades I give reflect that (I rarely, now, come across students who are basically illiterate, which used to happen in every class). Students might be working harder, or working smarter, because they care more about getting good grades believing (falsely, according to lots of commentators) that better grades yield higher incomes and better job prospects. Instructors might have improved: many of the institutions have seen a decline in the teaching load for instructors over that period, allowing instructors more time to devote to preparation etc. Instructors might be more talented: certainly, the early period of grade inflation coincides with increased use of competitive and open hiring practices, and with the increased admission of women into the faculty.

I’m not saying that any of these things has happened, and the assertion that grade inflation has occurred accords completely with my prejudices. But I am surprised how uncarefully people interpret increased grades as grade inflation, and looking at the studies and reports that I expected to confirm my prejudices has made me skeptical. Can anyone help me restore my grumpy equilibrium?



Bb 07.26.05 at 3:34 pm

If the productivity of college graduates has risen, that would be evidence that college graduates are now capable of better work.

Of course, you would need some way to get a consistent estimate of the productivity gain caused by going to college (then and now). This might not be easy.


Dave 07.26.05 at 3:40 pm

One way to look at this: crediting higher grades to “grade inflation” would be the economic equivalent of crediting higher salaries to “inflation”, and ignoring any increase in worker productivity (improvement in student performance).

The demise of the “gentleman’s C” is largely because of the demise of the “gentleman” who earned it: more students are there to do the work (especially at the top-tier schools) rather than to put in the minimum necessary to get a piece of paper at the end.


Brian 07.26.05 at 3:43 pm

If pre-college education is better now, then even if the gain from going to college is unchanged, there would be rising grades without grade inflation.

One way to check this relatively carefully would be to look at subjects like math and (theoretical) physics where there can (a) be fairly similar tests across the years and (b) a way to compare whether the same number of right and wrong answers is correlated with the same letter grade as before. The results of an experiment like that would be interesting.


Bb 07.26.05 at 3:53 pm

I think you need a time machine to be sure.


SamChevre 07.26.05 at 4:05 pm

I would look at the relative grades in different subjects. I think that average grades in the humanities have gone up more than average grades in the sciences; that isn’t the pattern I would expect if the difference is better preparation or harder-working students. In my observation, students who are looking to coast are far more likely to avoid the sciences, and high school preparation in the sciences and especially in math has gotten much better over the last 30 years, while English preparation has if anything gotten worse.


Jim Harrison 07.26.05 at 4:28 pm

Concern about grade inflation is not new. For example a loud debate on the topic took place at Yale in 1967 and resulted in an overhaul of the grading system. If things really have been getting steadily worse during the ensuing 40 years or so, they must be awful indeed by now.

One other thought: in comparing academic performance over the years, isn’t it necessary to control for the increasing sophistication of the subject matter, at least in the sciences? I cleaned out a closet today and looked at some old biology books. No wonder people got higher grades in bio courses in those days. There was one heck of a lot less biology to learn.


bza 07.26.05 at 4:32 pm

This is a tangent, but:

In my observation, students who are looking to coast are far more likely to avoid the sciences.

That’s certainly true, but doesn’t mean such students end up in the humantities. My imrpession is that at better schools slacker students end up disproportionately concentrated in economics and psychology, while at worse schools they’re getting bachelors degrees in things like communications and business administration.


Dirk 07.26.05 at 4:33 pm

“My own institution has become distinctly more selective over the past 12 years, and the grades I give reflect that”

At the college level, grades are relative – or so I’ve always understood. I’m sure the students are better, but why should that affect the distribution of grades? The distribution should stay the same.

You can’t compare grades across institutions because some place might have better students than another place. But both places should have about the same grade distibution. Otherwise, you’d get mostly A’s at schools with great students and mostly C’s and D’s at schools with mediocre students.

I guess I don’t understand this logic. Yes, teachers love their students. But that doesn’t mean they give them all A’s.


Tim 07.26.05 at 4:35 pm

bb thinks we need a time machine, but that’s not the only way to compare past and present. We can’t look at yesterday’s students in today’s classes, but we could look at today’s students on yesterday’s exams, i.e., use experimental rather than historical methods.

Plenty of university archives will have syllabi and exams from 20, 30, 50, a hundred years ago. Give your predecessor’s exam and compare your students’ answers to their predecessors.

Not a perfect method, but it could give some nice samples to compare.


Anarch 07.26.05 at 4:36 pm

I’m not saying that any of these things has happened, and the assertion that grade inflation has occurred accords completely with my prejudices. But I am surprised how uncarefully people interpret increased grades as grade inflation, and looking at the studies and reports that I expected to confirm my prejudices has made me skeptical. Can anyone help me restore my grumpy equilibrium?

This is still at the level of anecdote, but an interesting comparison can (or could) be done in the O level/GCSE maths and A level maths curricula with the intensive preparation via past exams. Speaking only for myself and my observations of my friends, it was crystal clear that there had a) been a precipitous drop in the difficulty level of the A level maths exams circa 1989, I think it was (from our perspective, the exams got a hell of a lot harder), and b) the work we were doing was pretty clearly not comparable to the work done in the past yet was getting higher grades at my secondary school. So there’s one data point in favor of some kind grade inflation.


Hiram Hover 07.26.05 at 4:38 pm

Hmm – a few thoughts:

1. To the extent that professors are grading students compared to their contemporary cohort, shouldn’t some of that already be factored out? If B (or C, or whatever) is supposed to be “average,” then it doesn’t really matter that a B student in 2005 performs better than a B student in 1965, because that’s not the point of comparison. The question is whether, in any given cohort, professors have raised their standard for what letter grade they assign an average student.

2. Individual professors certainly have anecdotes to that effect–ie, of raising the grade they assign to what they consider average work. Others tell stories of assigning higher grades to the same quality work today than they would have in the past. That evidence is more slippery to intepret, but cumulatively does seem important.

3. Your theory about the improving quality of students would also need to take into account the changing slopes of the “mean grade over time” line. It rose sharply in the late 60s-early 70s; roughly plateaued for more than 10 yrs; and then began rising, gradually but steadily again, in the late 80s. At least some of those changes seem more consistent with changes in grading policy than in the underlying quality of students.


anno-nymous 07.26.05 at 4:44 pm

BZA: Econ & psych, sure. Let’s add sociology, political science, and geography to the list of social science slacker majors. But slackers (and, in my experience, the less intelligent slackers at that) tend even more towards English and the romance languages and media/cinema studies, at liberal arts colleges.


Hektor Bim 07.26.05 at 4:45 pm

I think there are a number of effects here. One effect is that at the best schools, the students are better. Yale when Bush went there didn’t accept women, now it does. The students almost have to be better if there are now twice as many applying. It’s also true that at the best schools, the size of the incoming class has not increased with population and increasing access to higher education. As we widen the pool of who gets to go to college, this means that the competition is fiercer.

It’s also true that academic scholarships and legacies throw a wrench in this analysis. After all, it’s clear GW Bush didn’t get into Yale on merit, and I doubt his daughter did either. Anyone have any statistics on whether legacies have increased or decreased as a portion of the admitting classes?

The analysis gets even weirder as you move down the academic food chain.


Sebastian Holsclaw 07.26.05 at 4:59 pm

One way to check this relatively carefully would be to look at subjects like math and (theoretical) physics where there can (a) be fairly similar tests across the years and (b) a way to compare whether the same number of right and wrong answers is correlated with the same letter grade as before. The results of an experiment like that would be interesting.

Not to bring up a sore subject, but wouldn’t (somewhat) stable tests like the SAT give some hint about at least the level of preparation coming in? This compared to first year grades should at least give you some hint.


Jephary 07.26.05 at 5:17 pm

The two comments of Jim Harrison and Tim are related in a quirky sort of way. Sure, there is more biology (or any science) to learn than in the past. But Tim’s suggestion that we experimentally enquire of students skills using 20-50 year old tests misses the nature of developing fields and the sloughing of old skills. In my discipline (chemistry and biochemistry) students today would fail most qualitative tests for chemical analysis – we have machines that do it (better?) today. By learning a new technology the old becomes redundant. Sadly, with the loss of some of these skills, so too goes critical thinking. Not always, but often.


Scorpio 07.26.05 at 5:37 pm

Sorry, but my college included a chart of grade inflation with the copies of transcripts in the late 1970’s because there had, indeed, been grade inflation.


ebw 07.26.05 at 5:41 pm

This isn’t directly on topic, but I think it’s still relevant.

When I was employed in academic administration at a large public university system a few years back, I recall working on a project which established that, net of just about every individual and classroom level control you can think of, being in a class taught by an adjunct–instead of a tenure tracker–raised a student’s grade considerably. (This report was for internal purposes and therefore wasn’t published, but I’m sure someone must have done this is the published lit.)

It seems pretty plausible to me to hypothesize that this “adjunct effect” holds more generally–whether you like to look at the world in terms of incentives, norms, or what have you.

We do know that the use of adjuncts and assorted part-timers has exploded over the last 3 decades.

So, I agree entirely that we don’t have compelling evidence of rampant grade inflation. I guess I’m proposing a mechanism for a phenomenon I can’t document.


sien 07.26.05 at 5:59 pm

The Economist had a fine article on the subject.

Grades are used for two things, to show ability in a subject and as a discriminant between students. It is possible, as Harry suggests, that students have indeed been gaining in ability. IQ scores go up regularly and the absence of solid, easily available data is odd.

Interestingly enough, in the US, GPA (Grade Point Average) can still be used as a discriminant, as pointed out over at Daniel Drezner’s site.


eudoxis 07.26.05 at 6:43 pm

It’s hard to believe that there is no variation even in a highly select group of students. If students are entering classes better prepared they need to be challenged to a higher standard.


Tom T. 07.26.05 at 6:52 pm

A few years ago, the University of Virginia’s law school raised its prescribed grading mean from B to B+, because it had determined that its students and graduates were at a competitive disadvantage in the job market as against students from comparably-regarded law schools that already had a B+ mean.


Harry 07.26.05 at 7:30 pm


what you are calling for is grade deflation. That’s fine, and maybe the right policy. But I’m asking for evidence of grade inflation.

BTW, if you use GPA, you can discern a lot of variation, even if everyone has a GPA of 3.5 and above, because it goes to 2 decimal places. SO I don’t see the need for deflation for the purpose of discerning variation (but there are other purposes it might serve).


Harry 07.26.05 at 7:46 pm


would you be willing to share the name of the college with me, so I could chase it up? I’m curious whether they distinguished increased grades from grade inflation (no-one disputes that grades have risen within many colleges, or at least, if they do, I’m persuaded that they have).


eudoxis 07.26.05 at 8:14 pm

Resolution of GPA between students is not an issue, for the same reason that all students at the 99.99% and above still represent a very large variation, but grade compression near one end in a particular course may indicatae that the brighter students are not being challenged enough.
Evidence for grade inflation may be suspect, especially as people like Harvey Mansfield use it as evidence of affirmative grading.


john theibault 07.26.05 at 8:14 pm

I believe that Alfie Kohn (not a disinterested party) has done some analysis that shows that the increase in mean GPAs at Ivy League schools has been roughly proportional to the increase in mean SATs of incoming freshmen. I’ve not looked at his evidence in enough depth to know if it is sound.


jacob 07.26.05 at 9:10 pm

Re #9: Many universities will also have scattered students papers (especially from the humanities) in their archives, or in the papers of their professors. One could have modern instructors grade these old papers interspersed with new ones (blindly, of course) and see what happened. Advances in the field, of course, would cause problems, but I’m sure you could write a decent methods section that would explain it away.

In sports, no one blinks an eye at the fact that records are continually broken and what was before exceptional is now commonplace. If athletes get better with passing time, why does it surprise us that students should?


Timothy Burke 07.26.05 at 11:08 pm

This theory is in fact commonly discussed when the issue of grade inflation comes up: that either students are doing better in learning once they get to college or that in selective institutions the caliber of student has gone up so much that the average level of performance is vastly better right out the gate.

The problem is that first off, there are at least two major philosophies of assessment out there, and they’ve been out there for a while. First, that the purpose of grades is to rank student performance in relation to other students, and second, that grades are an absolute marker of performance. The problem is that no one is a pure absolutist on either of these. If I give everyone an “A”, even if they’re all much better than students twenty years ago, I have no way any longer to communicate to the students or to anyone who might see a student’s transcript what the difference is between an ordinary “A” and a really unusual or superlative “A”, unless I have an additional assessment mechanism (like written comments that go into a student portfolio) at which point I don’t need grades anyway. If I insist that grades rigidly represent the distinction between students, then I have to have a quota system for handing out each grade, and can’t do anything to recognize it when I might happen to have an unusually good class of students.

The existence of these two philosophies is what makes it a bit difficult to tell what the rise in mean grades actually signifies. But since the typical A-F system has an absolute cap (the “A+”), at some point a rising mean leads to the grading system being of no use any longer: it can only communicate one thing, which is that virtually all students at a given institution are uniformly excellent.

One other thing to throw in the mix: many surveys of grade inflation suggest that the rising mean grade is unevenly distributed through the typical curriculum, with natural science grades rising much more slowly than grades in the humanities.


fjm 07.27.05 at 2:17 am

There is some grade inflation, just sitting in exam boards watching people work out to recalculate grades to produce higher marks tells me that, but in addition, the recruitment pool has changed. My partner entered Oxford in 1965 with grades that wouldn’t get you into a Poly now. He could do that because only five per cent of the population applied.


a 07.27.05 at 6:07 am

Surely the logical assumption, lacking any evidence on achievement, is to suppose that achievement is constant, ergo there is grade inflation. Sure achievement may have gone up, but it also may have gone down.


harry b 07.27.05 at 7:35 am

The problem is that the rising grades are observed within institutions; and as john and sebastian suggest they tend to correlate with rising SAT scores. The humanities/natural sciences split may be explained by two things: the fact that a number of natural science courses act as gatekeepers to lucrative professions, and… (now I’m going to offend some people) that quality of instruction in the natural sciences and math in HIGH SCHOOL has declined relative to instruction in the humanities. In the UK, where I know the high school situation better, all the experts think that the latter has happened (and that it will get worse). So prior achievement, the best predictor of grades in a course, has risen less in the sciences/math than in the humanities. Though, how you control for changed knowledge base, goodness knows.

I see no reason to assume constant achievement. We know, for example, that adult illiteracy rates have fallen dramatically in the past 200 years. Why assume constant achievement?


Russkie 07.27.05 at 8:32 am

How about comparing grades at top private and donor-friendly US universities to those at similar but publically-funded universities in Canada?


a 07.27.05 at 8:50 am

“that quality of instruction in the natural sciences and math in HIGH SCHOOL has declined relative to instruction in the humanities”

That it has decreased in the sciences and math, I have little doubt. On the other hand, I know of no reason why it has improved in the humanities.


math prof 07.27.05 at 9:57 am

Anyone who has compared the average grade given by the math dept (where subject matter doesn’t change very rapidly) to those given by the humanties will quickly realize that grade inflation hasn’t infected math departments at all but has affected the humanties. This is assuming that it is fair to say that the average preparation for calculus hasn’t really changed much in the 25 years since I got my PhD and so grade distribution has remained unchange in all the math departments I am familiar with over that period. Yet in the humanities grades have risn dramtically on average. So, unless one wants to assume students are just better prepared for the humanties on average then they are for math, this provides strong evidence that grade inflation has taken place in the humanties.


Don N 07.27.05 at 9:59 am

Economics as a slacker course. Erk! At least in the economics courses I took – and in those my son is currently taking – you often needed advanced calculus, statistics, etc. It sometimes seemed the field was submerged in math.

When I got my degree twenty-plus years ago at a state university I had occasion to compare notes with friends attending private colleges. They definitely got better grades for the same work. Likewise, bell curves were more often utilized in my classes instead of grading based on an absolute mark on the test. This still seems pretty common in my son’s classes. I’m skeptical that grade inflation is so much of a problem in public universities.

My son was also much better prepared in high-school – both in sciences and humanities – for university than was I. It seems common for public high-schools in middle-class communities to have AP courses of all sorts.

Don N.


phil 07.27.05 at 10:00 am

My law school just raised the average for its mandatory grading curve and also implemented A+s for the first time, to bring it in line with other law schools who’ve been doing those things for years. From where I’m sitting, grade inflation is very real indeed.


a cornellian 07.27.05 at 10:31 am

Being currently enrolled in an Ivy Leauge school, I should have something to say on this topic. I don’t really have a posistion so i’ll just put forth my observations.

the classes I have taken where i feel the grades were easiest were two philsophy classes (200 level which is the lowest because there is only one 100 level) but on the other hand alot of people in those classes seemed very confused so they wern’t all that skewed.

In my intro physics classes they intentionaly set the mean about a half grade to a grade higher because they were the honors sequence and did not want to deter people from taking the honors classes for the reasons of grades (there was a complicated process which involved control questions which were on both the honors and normal exams and such)

the math classes here do not have much inflation

the social sciences and the business people (particualry the hotel school) are thought of as much easier by the hard science people and engineers.

In chiense there wasn’t really inflation in terms of shifting the middle forward but they did pull the bottom up to the middle (i think this was to let you give up gracefully, they take it rather seriously, not designed for the casually interested student at all)(I also think this was inpart to make the course fairer for people who did not gorw up around chinese or already spoke one dialect (i took mandrian, alot of the class already spoke canto))

My father is also a physist and he says the stuff I am doing now is similar to what he did towards the end his undergrad (i have finised 4 semesters) and when i graduate i will be about where he was when they gave him his masters in terms of course work.

There is also a question of how to compare grades between institutions. Our TA this semster commented that he didn’t see anything on the level of what we were doing as sophmores until he got to grad school. (he went to UC school, i think, he wasn’t very clear on that), so does that mean a c here is better than an a someplace else? If you let the schools decide them selves then you get grade inflation at top tier schools, or do they grade harshly and hope that employers and grad schools will take in to account where they are from.

how do you deal with brown where you can take every course pass/fail?

as for the claims that high school level math/science is going down, it depends on where you look. If you look at math/science magnet schools there is no way you can say it is going down. even in my normal public school i took math up through calc and college level chem.
Not that i think that even matters past freshmen year because you are doing material you didn’t even really know existed in high school. maybe this effect could be seen in courses for non-majors, but not in major. show me a time when it was common to cover anything past algebraic newtonain physics (it doesn’t get any easier), maybe some calc (i would be really nice if they brought back the draconian trig and geometry classes though, one of our profs was picking on us for not knowing them and they would have been useful to know before i needed them) or the amount of chemistry that is covered in a semester of college chem?

watching SAT scores is a silly thing to do. They track nothing but your ability to memorize words and lean questioning patterns. now this may be a useful skill in some fields i would not conflate it with demonstrating intelegence, critical thinking ability, or better work over all. this might be constant with an increase in grades due to an increase in people who are good at identifying what the profesors want and giving that answer to them and are willing to do absurd things (like just memorize 600 words) for grades.

i’m going to stop typing now because i am ranting, and most likly starting to offend people


Nancy 07.27.05 at 11:07 am

I don’t see the point of blaming specific fields (humanities vs natural sciences). The difficulty of a major depends on how it is taught and what is expected of students. People demean psychology, attributing its popularity to accessibility or lack of challenge, but they overlook its broad applicability across job categories in a service and knowledge-based economy, especially for students who have not yet zeroed in on a career goal. Psychology can be and is taught in a challenging manner. Our majors take 5 undergraduate methods courses because measurement of complex phenomena is key to approaching psychology as a science. They take statistics in the math dept, then an upper division statistics for behavioral sciences. An introductory neuroscience course is required of all our majors (our course is also required for biology neuroscience majors). I have frequently encountered students with other majors taking psychology as a GE. They think the course will be a snap, then they feel outraged that the courses aren’t as easy as expected and they don’t know how to approach the material effectively. I suspect that those who teach humanities courses may have the same experience. The President just awarded the Medal of Science to Duncan Luce, a psychologist, and Daniel Kahnemann, another psychologist, just won the Nobel prize in economics. I get tired of people assuming that psychology is the slacker major because all we do is sit around and talk about our feelings. As psychology has become more scientific, more empirical, and as it has developed more specific theories to explain behavior, it has become more difficult for students — I doubt we are responsible for grade inflation or that we are the safe haven of campus slackers.


Matt McGrattan 07.27.05 at 11:56 am

One piece of anecdotal evidence: A couple of years ago I taught some revision courses for ‘A’-level students (high school students) in philosophy and, in the process of setting sample essay questions, had occasion to read through about 20 or more years of past exam papers.

I definitely didn’t get the sense that they were any easier now than they were 20 years ago — although it was the case that the subject matter looked to have changed a little. The later papers had rather less strictly historical material and rather more broad ‘conceptual’ questions (not necessarily a bad thing, either).

The fact that exam papers are broadly comparable doesn’t necessarily mean that grade inflation isn’t going on, as the mark required to achieve an A on the exam may be lower, but the papers themselves certainly didn’t seem to be dumbed down.


Tim 07.27.05 at 12:15 pm

Stanley Fish, in an article in the Chronicle of Higher Ed (if I recall correctly) proposed that all grades should be normalized (is that the right word?) relative to other students taking the same class, and grades given by the professor in other classes (the math made sense to me at the time, but I haven’t thought mathematically in years now and can’t remember the details).

The argument is that even if the ideal is grading against an absolute standard, you can approximate this by grading relative to a large enough sample.


james 07.27.05 at 2:45 pm

[the] quality of instruction in the natural sciences and math in HIGH SCHOOL has declined relative to instruction in the humanities.

I have to take issue with that one, I think. That certainly wasn’t my experience. As someone who always did much better in humanities than natural sciences, I found high school to be incredibly frustrating. For those who had an aptitude in math or science, there was a great deal of room for advancement and a challenging curriculum. If your aptitude lay in the humanities, there was really nowhere for you to go. Even at the AP level, I found the humanities courses to be completely unchallenging. The school just didn’t seem interested in developing that program, though they were excellent at turning out math and science whizzes.
There’s no way to extrapolate from one high school’s curricula, of course, but I found my experience borne out at college. I worked in the school’s writing center as an undergraduate and was absolutely amazed but what I saw. Students would come in for help for help with papers (particularly humanities papers) with no idea about even the most basic principles. Keep in mind these were people in bioengineering, materials science and pre-med programs (in which our university consistently ranks in the top ten, often top five). But they had no idea where to start when assigned a paper about a novel. It seemed odd that they had never been taught how to argue a point in writing or how to structure a paper. Similarly, basic familiarity with literary criticism, the history of literature, etc. was completely lacking, despite an amazing aptitude in the natural sciences. In most cases, I don’t believe it was any fault on their part; they were quite frustrated by the experience but had simply not been exposed to this stuff before. And it wasn’t just people in math and the hard sciences: humanities, econ and psych majors had the same difficulties. Admittedly, the experience one would have working in a university writing center is biased towards any student with this problem, but it also seemed to be the case in all of the lower-level humanities courses I took.


washerdreyer 07.27.05 at 3:05 pm

Well, we have to be talking about institutions that don’t have amandatory distribution (.pdf)(scroll to page two) or the entire question boils down to: has institution X recentered their curve? If so, is there any reason to think that this recentering was inspired by the students having gotten better, rather than a desire for the students to have better looking transcripts.


Harry 07.27.05 at 3:08 pm

Tim –Fish’s proposal is taken from the book by Johnson to which I refer. There are real drawbacks to it, not least that Johnson (and Fish) lack any cross-disciplinary standard of excellence. But any proposal has drawbacks. The worst drawback it has is that it is so complicated that it is very hard to make a case for it in an environment in which many faculty and students will be implacably opposed — Johnson has amusing anecdotes about the way things went at Duke, and at my own campus the then-Provost (and now-President) floated the idea a few years back, only to be trounced by (in my view unreasonable and ignorant) objections. I liked the idea, but even now, even though I understand the proposal pretty well, I’d not go to bat for it in public — not because I’m cowardly, but because I’d not be confident of keeping everything straight in public.


harry b 07.27.05 at 3:18 pm

washerdreyer — can’t get at your link. Can you repost?


Doug K 07.27.05 at 5:46 pm

Anecdote: my wife and I both received our first degrees in South Africa – Math/Philosophy/Comp Sci in my case, English/Comp Sci in my wife’s. We’ve taken a number of courses at USA colleges/universities, mostly Comp Sci but some psychology, and it’s notable that work for which we expect C or B grades gets A or better. I know I’m not putting my best efforts into the coursework: my best efforts go into my job and raising kids: so it’s almost demoralizing to get these grades. The student as consumer ?


bubbles 07.27.05 at 6:36 pm

I realize this is just one small data point, but my parents and I went to the same large highly regarded public university and we took many of the same subjects. Looking over the course syllabi and term papers my parents had saved, I noticed that the science courses have become harder (especially biology) while the English and history courses have become much less rigorous than they used to be.


Karen 07.27.05 at 11:10 pm

Another anecdotal data point: I attended Hightly Regarded Big State for my bachelor’s degree in engineering, graduating in 1980. I’m doing a radical change of career, gone back to school to study geology at Not-Quite-So-Highly Regarded State, so of course I had to take all the upper division geology classes.

In the ’70s I was a B/B+ student. Now I’m a straight-A student (A+ isn’t given) in the undergraduate courses. I get much the same score on exams as I did as an undergraduate, maybe a little higher. I certainly get much better grades on writing assignments, but I’m also a much better writer after a couple of decades of practice. Based on my own evaluation of my work, in 1980 at HRBS I would have been a B+/A- student.

So, is Highly Regarded Big State that much better than my current school? Or is it grade inflation? Perhaps a little of both.


Ruth 07.28.05 at 9:08 am

I get tired of people assuming that psychology is the slacker major because all we do is sit around and talk about our feelings.

Before anyone gets offended about their discipline, or their motivations for studying it, being called into question, remember that no one’s impugning either. The issue at hand is not whether all people (students or faculty) in a discipline are “slackers,” but whether said discipline tends to attract more lazy or unprepared students because of a perception that it’s easy.

Although I agree, the perception — or the reality — that many of one’s students are below average can be frustrating.

And of course, don’t forget that there are different kinds of “slackers”: for example, the ones who may be drawn to the humanities because they think all they have to do is bullshit on papers, and the ones drawn to test-heavy disciplines, because they think all they have to do is memorize. Either way, they might get out without actually being required to produce independent thought.

By the by, while a number of people have discussed the relative rise in grades of humanities vs. sciences, I don’t remember seeing any speculation about reasons that centers on grading methods and class sizes. Humanities classes tend to be smaller, with an emphasis on discussion, which fosters a more personal bond between professor and student. As a large proportion of grading centers on fairly subjective measures (papers), it can be hard to be, well, a hard-ass. Introductory science classes, in contrast, tend to be large, and graded by tests (and often by TAs or scantrons). Combine this with the general societal expectation (in the US, at least) that most people are supposed to do poorly in science, and a bad grade becomes much less personal.

Of course, as I look at what I just wrote, I see that I’m not making an argument for change over time — merely one for the sciences producing lower grades on average. But if you combine this with a lot of what we’ve seen change over the past 3 decades — not only the rise in student-as-consumer expectations, and the sense that everyone’s ideas and abilities need to be validated, but also changes in the role of prof/teacher as authority figure — I think you could see reasons for why grade inflation would hit particularly hard in the humanistic disciplines.


Justin Blank 07.28.05 at 3:20 pm

One of my pet conjectures is that the growing quantity of AP credit that students have results in slightly higher grades, since those students are often able to avoid difficult classes (Calc 2 is the most failed class at my college, and a lot of people simply place out of it), or to take fewer classes while still graduating on time. Similarly, there are websites that provide information on the grading distributions of different professors or classes. Finally I’ve heard anecdotal evidence that dropping courses was much rarer in my parents’ generation (college in the late ’60s).

So perhaps some of the observed changes in grade distribution can be explained by the fact that students these days are much more concerned (conniving?) about their grades and have quite a few more tools they can use to make sure that they get good grades. And none of this requires any major changes in grading policies. (Even if these are real factors, I can’t imagine they could come close to explaining historical differences in the grades students have received, I just want to point out that the typical inference from “higher average grades” to “oh no the professors have ruined everything” is far too hasty).


dsgolburgh 07.30.05 at 9:03 am

I am a high school English teacher in South Florida and the issue of grade inflation is one that I obsess about on a daily basis. Many of my former students have graduated high school with very limited abilities in writing; however, they almost all seem to breeze right through 1101 and 1102 with unbelievable ease. It seems that professors, at least in the liberal arts, are less concerned with the quality of the work than with the act of handing in that work.

I have also been teaching at Miami Dade Community College in Miami for the past 7 years, and I can say that many of the students in the remedial writing classes (college prep) pass not because they have been successful, but because passing them will guarantee they will be back to pay for another class the following semester.

I have no evidence of grade inflation. All I can do as a teacher is challenge my students and use grades as an accurate measure of their performance. If you’d like to read my philosophy of grading, please visit


Cal Lanier 07.31.05 at 4:28 pm

“I’m sure the students are better, but why should that affect the distribution of grades? The distribution should stay the same.”

No, they shouldn’t. GPA is an extremely important metric for grad school applications; why should any elite school want to penalize their students? Podunk U has 5 outstanding students, 30 good students, and 25 average students. Elite U has 50 outstanding students and 10 average students. Why should a student at Elite U be penalized for being in the bottom half of its outstanding students by receiving a C (or even a B) when his work is almost certainly superior to most students at Podunk U?

As for math instruction declining over the years, that’s almost certainly not true. All the college admissions tests reflect increasing math scores over the years, and verbal scores are consistently behind. English Comp AP classes have a far lower reputation than AP Calculus and AP Stats (although both of these courses are criticized for other reasons).

While everyone focuses on college grade inflation, I see a real problem with grade *deflation* in the top level high schools. These schools want good test scores and AP tests, have great teachers that they can pay for, and the best way to attract parents is to tout the great scores AND the tough grading.

As a result, the elite rank of juniors and seniors are working at courses that are often harder than they’ll ever see in college, and getting Bs for work of a difficulty and quality that 80-90% of high school students will never approach. While colleges give some weight to harder courses, they usually limit the weight. They also use AP grades but not AP scores in admissions. As a result, students who receive a B+ in an AP course and a 5 on the test (a very common situation) could very conceivably lose out to students who get an A in an AP course and a 1 on the test (or who didn’t bother to take it at all).

The best way to address this for highschool students would be to use SAT Subject and AP test scores as a proxy for grades–or at least as a balancing mechanism, adding and subtracting from the GPA based on scores. And the only reasonable way to address college grade inflation would likewise include some standardized solution.

Barring that, there’s no real solution. Given that the best schools are turning out high quality students, I’m not sure there’s a real need for a college solution.

Comments on this entry are closed.