Duke university

Grade Inflation – Is the Bell Curve Permanent?

Although altruism isn’t completely dead, people are, far more often than not, going to act in their self-interest. The administrators and faculties of colleges are as subject to this behavioral tendency as the rest of us are. This explains the last half-century of grade inflation at American colleges.

Though it has advantages for those involved, grade inflation also brings problems with it. For graduate schools and employers, grade inflation adds to the difficulty of identifying the crème de la crème of academic performers. Surprisingly (or not), this problem is most acute at Ivy League and other top-tier institutions.

Consider the normal set of grades from A to F, with +/- for A’s, B’s and C’s and then D and F. In a normal distribution, the mean grade would be B, the midpoint between the lowest and the highest grades. In fact, until the mid-sixties, B’s were considered a good grade. Anything higher was above average.

What caused grades to rise beginning in the 1960’s? Some analysts have theorized that affirmative action and the Vietnam War were the initial causes. Faculty, they say, went easy on students who either were less ready for college than their peers or needed good grades to avoid the draft. However, this doesn’t jibe with contemporaneous data or even common sense. Draft age men only needed passing grades to remain in school, not A’s. And affirmative action students were a small fraction of student populations, so if faculty members misguidedly inflated the grades of these students, the mean would have would have only shifted rightward marginally. So, these can’t be the factors that caused the start of grade inflation.

Student advocates maintain that students at elite colleges today are smarter than their predecessors. While top-ranked schools have become much more highly selective due to heightened competition, this theory doesn’t explain why middle-tier schools have also experienced grade inflation. And even if you agree that 21st century students are, on average, smarter than their forebears, an understanding of statistics informs us that the bell curve should reflect the standard distribution of academic talent today, not yesterday. The mean grade should still be a B.

At the most elite colleges in the country, grades are clearly biased toward the high end of the range. A disproportionate percentage of grades are compressed into the narrow range from A- to A+. There are many examples among the nation’s top schools that demonstrate this phenomenon. At Yale, over 60% of undergraduate grades are A’s. Stanford students refer to a B- as a “Stanford F”.  According to USA Today, about 80% of Harvard students graduate with honors. One year, over 90% of Harvard seniors graduated summa, magna, or cum laude. At Brown, about two-thirds of the grades given to undergraduate students have been A’s since 2010. The school’s policy offers students either a “Satisfactory/No Credit” grading scale or an “A, B, C, /No Credit scale. The worst result a student can obtain is “No Credit,” which is given when the course isn’t satisfactorily completed. You can’t fail!

College administrators at top-tier institutions have long recognized the negative aspects of grade inflation, but each school has been reluctant to tackle the problem in light of the ramifications of being a pioneer. A few years ago, Princeton tried being a pioneer by assigning non-binding quotas for A’s, B’s, and C’s to faculty members for each course. The administration, faculty, and students were less than thrilled with the results, so the school has since loosened constraints on a faculty member’s grading discretion. Wellesley and Berkeley have conducted more successful grade deflation programs, but they’re alone among top colleges.

There are other reasons for the reluctance of top-tier administrators to stick their necks out to reverse grade inflation. Stuart Rojstaczer, a retired Duke professor who analyzes grading data, has noted a key reason. He has singled out the “emergence of a consumer-based culture in higher education” as the primary source of the problem. As top schools have become more intensely competitive, tuition and other costs have risen sharply. A family must now pay a huge sum for their student to attend a top school, so they feel entitled to higher grades for their children. When sufficiently high grades are not awarded, they apply pressure to administrators and, through them, to the faculty. Supporting this thesis is the fact that GPA’s are highest at elite private schools where tuition is very high, even after controlling for selectivity.

Student reliance on course evaluation media, either through school-sanctioned media or unofficial websites, is also a factor in grade inflation. Higher grades elicit positive feedback from students. Adjunct faculty members in particular need favorable student evaluations to get rehired, making them especially susceptible to inflationary pressures.

The increase in a school’s attractiveness that results from higher GPA’s affects interschool competition as well. For example, during the Princeton grading experiment mentioned above, their administration learned that recruiters at competitor institutions such as Harvard, Stanford, and Yale were citing Princeton’s grading policy as a way to recruit against them.

So, the answer to the question posed in this post’s title is… yes!  There doesn’t appear to be a way to reverse the status quo, that is, unless a national collegiate organization arises to oversee academics with the authority that the NCAA has over athletics — and the odds of that happening are only slightly north of absolute zero.

As a successful college admissions consulting firm specializing in elite institutions, IvySelect works hard to provide services of measurable value and substantial benefit to our clients. The case for retaining IvySelect is strongest wherever the competition for admission is the most intense. As part of our comprehensive planning process, we guide students to apply to colleges that are the best fits for them rather than to simply apply to those schools that are most prestigious. However, for many of our students, their best-fit colleges are the most competitive and prestigious ones.