Inflated A’s

Grade inflation on college campuses may be driven by much laxer rules on dropping courses. Students who fear getting a GPA-lowering C can drop the class at the last minute at most colleges.

Stuart Rojstaczer, a geology professor at Duke, charts the trends. He blames the consumer culture in higher education for grade inflation, which resurged in the 1980s.

Students are paying more for a product every year, and increasingly they want and get the reward of a good grade for their purchase. In this culture, professors are not only compelled to grade easier, but also to water down course content. Both intellectual rigor and grading standards have weakened.

My daughter tells me her Stanford classmates expect an A for average work; B is the new D.

About Joanne


  1. People need to understand that the real force underlying grade inflation is the problem that schools which grade strictly end up punishing their students in the grad school market.

    With so many med schools cutting out applicants with a formula that eliminates those with grades below X, it is better to graduate from a program that gives meaningless A’s than to get a B- from a tough, well-respected school.

  2. jn has a point. My undergrad school had to add plusses and minuses to our grading system in large part because med schools were rejecting students who got a B from us but a B+ from a rival school, even though they were the same grade.

    My major department (math) and minor department (music) were probably guilty of quite a bit of grade inflation. They both took the theory for all major-level courses everyone gets an A or a B (unless they REALLY screw up, like get caught cheating). Is it any wonder I was told that math was a “jock major”?

  3. Math was a *jock major*? Good lord, what school was this???

  4. Not a new issue.

    When I attended an East coast “engineering” school in the late ’60s, the university average was a 2.2. Being enrolled in ROTC, and with a war in full swing, I remember the Professor of Aerospace Studies being concerned because due to the difference in “standards”. He was concerned that well qualified students/candidates at the school would be unfairly compared to students/candidates at schools with more “liberal” grading criteria.

  5. Darren: Bowdoin College. I wish I’d known before going there; I might have found grad school much easier. By the way, it’s standard in math grad departments for all grades to be A and B. Here a grad student risks expulsion if their GPA falls below a 3.0. I almost dropped out when I got a B- first semester because I thought my career would be over.

  6. I agree with the above comments, but think there is at least one additional problem.

    A grade is measurement of relative achievement or merit. One problem is that there is increasingly less agreement on the issue of “relative to whom?” I’ve heard of Harvard, Stanford, etc. undergraduates who don’t believe it would be “fair” for them to receive a “C” for the same level of merit or achievement that would earn them an “A” at [Blank] State University. They want to continue to be graded relative to all of the students they left behind — i.e., all of the students in high school who didn’t get into Harvard, Stanford, etc.

    I will always remember one moment of my law school orientation. The professor informed us that, by definition, one-half of the students sitting in the auditorium would be in the bottom half of the class. People (including me) were in shock. We had all been in the top 10% or 5% or whatever, and now it was possible (indeed, at least as likely as not) that we would be in the… bottom?!?!

    I think students — and particularly students at elite institutions — have a hard time dealing the fact that every time you move up one level (i.e., from high school to college, from college to grad school), you have lopped off 90% of the curve. The bottom 90% of the people you were formerly competing against are GONE. To avoid hurt feelings, we have essentially adopted a pass fail system, where an “A” is a pass, and a “B” is a fail.

    Is there any escape? Drinkers Purgatory

  7. PJ/Maryland says:

    I agree with JN that grad school influence is a big factor in grade inflation today. Is it possible that more undergrads today are planning on grad school than, say, 20 years ago? If so, this would suggest why grade inflation has picked up recently.

    It’s interesting that Rojstaczer suggests an economic reason for grade inflation. (Tho I’d be more inclined to accept his suggestion if he were an economics professor rather than geology.) But if schools feel pressure to raise grades, it must be because they fear losing students (ie, demand is less than supply). Given the rate of college tuition increase, I can certainly see that supply may outstrip demand at this price level.

    Rojstaczer says (under the heading “Attempts to Relate Recent Grade inflation to Improved Student Quality and Other Factors”): The influence of affirmative action is sometimes used to explain grade inflation. However, much of the rise in minority enrollments occurred during a time, the mid-1970s to mid-1980s, when grade inflation waned. As a result, it is unlikely that affirmative action has had a significant influence.

    I propose an alternate hypothesis. The rise in minority enrollments led to a student body that was less-prepared than previously. Therefore, grade inflation continued over this period, but was offset by lower grades awarded to less proficient students. Ie, the slightly lower grades given poorly-prepared minority admits masks the continuing grade inflation in this period.

  8. Unfortunately, I’ve noticed that many students at elite universities often feel they paid their dues just by surviving the admission process. They feel entitled from that point on.
    Real life frequently treats the “entitled” with a cruelty that they resent greatly, but real life is postponed until after graduation by administrative decree.

  9. Our oldest daughter is a freshman at a Great Books college. They issue grades so that students who wish to transfer have a transcript to take with them. At Christmas break, our daughter was a bit depressed by her high school friend’s mid term report of all A’s at a Rocky Mountain sited university. My daughter’s grades were B’s but the reports from the tutors were that she was a solid contributor to the seminar discussions. Her consolation was in the knowledge that she wasn’t learning to pass a test – but to think.

    As a parent paying the bill I struggle with the intellectual battle of knowing that learning is what I am financing, yet wanting to see the traditional symbol of achievement on the report from the school. And sadly I take some consolation from learning that there are some who are not getting B’s but worse.

    In all of this it is our daughter who seems to be acting in a more mature way than I am. So I guess we’re getting our money’s worth.

  10. Fuzzy Rider says:

    When I was teaching at a small college, student evaluations figured greatly into our evaluation as teachers- folks who got ‘A’ always said good stuff about me, folks who got ‘F’ never did.

    I don’t know how much student evaluations figure in at larger colleges and universities, but it could be another force driving up grades.

  11. Eliminate the student evals of professors, and have the professors reviewed on subject and general knowledge on a periodic basis (along with teaching methods). I.E. – the mystery student approach (where a student gets paid to eval a course which may or may not have problems).

    Just my two cents worth!

  12. Last time I had to look at my transcripts (long ago), I saw that along with the grade, they gave the number of students in the class, the average grade, standard deviation and some other statistical indicators. This solves a lot of problems, assuming the person looking at the transcript is interested in spending the time to find out what the grades really mean.

  13. The late drop deadline ceratinly has something to do with it. I taught at a good liberal arts college in Atlanta that allowed withdrawals up to week 10 or so. Very distressing.

  14. As a sophomore at Duke, I must say I fully agree with the sentiment that the ability to drop classes easily leads to grade inflation. On one particularly memorable occasion, a student was agitated that the professor wasn’t there on the day of our first test (TAs sometimes proctor exams without the professor being present) because that was the last day to drop the course and he needed the professor to sign something (not sure exactly what, as I haven’t ever dropped a course).

    I also agree that evaluations are grossly overrated as a true measure of a professor’s skill.

    Unlike most posters here, though, I’m not really convinced that grade inflation is a particularly bad thing (I don’t think it’s good, either), as rest assured, people compete just as hard whether the mean is set at B-/C+ (like my intro chemistry class) or B+ (higher level mathematics classes). Does anyone have any studies which attempt to determine whether “grade inflation” has an definitive impact on certain measures of success (such as GRE scores or income 10 years post graduation)? I am of course talking about an econometric study, or one conducted like it, as I feel that this topic generally generates many anecdotes without much actual supporting evidence.

    As an aside to boo’s comment, I have thought that a “power ranking” similar to computer football ranking would be ideal. Perhaps 50% could come from the average grade in a class, and 50% from the average GPA of the student in the class (so poor students aren’t rewarded for taking classes together, nor would good students be punished for taking honors classes). I haven’t entirely thought this through, but I suspect that this would be a possible solution to both grade inflation problems (since you could report the rank prominently), and problems of “easy” majors having students flood their classes to boost GPAs.

  15. An “A” at McGill in an Arts class? Ha! Hell, an A- is about the best the best once can expect for top quality work. Oh well, I’ll be a better person for it than my friends largely coasting by at other schools.

  16. Mad Scientist says:

    Two comments:

    First, A is for Average.

    Second, at least at good engineering schools, students fill out evaluations, but they mean very little. The emphasis is on bringing in research dollars, and teaching just takes away from grant-writing and research time.

    In my experience, the best professors (with a few notable exceptions) were the ones who had tenure, and had done all the research they wanted to do.

  17. I should add that I know of actual cases of really smart students graduating from MIT and Caltech who were denied admission to many, many schools because of their low grades. In one case, the girl got into a really terrible Medical program (one out of dozens she applied to) and then wiped the floor with the class.

    Caltech students used to have a term called “flunking in” where their grades made it hard for them to finish, but also hard for them to transfer to even halfway decent programs.

    Of course, there is a solution to this: Put more emphasis on SAT/GRE test scores (which can be compared across the board) than grades. If necessary, create even better, more difficult universal tests. But all the pressures in our society are to do the exact opposite.