Reforms aimed at fighting grade inflation are falling short

Grade inflation is rampant on American campuses. According to a study by Stuart Rojstaczer and Christopher Healy, A’s represent 43 percent of all grades awarded today—up from 15 percent in 1960. In fact, an “A” is now the most common grade awarded in college, and 73 percent of all grades are A’s and B’s. The problem is especially acute at private colleges and top public universities, particularly in the humanities and social sciences (except economics).

How then, in the face of all this blurring of lines between good, bad, and excellent, can higher education maintain a system of meaningful measures of student performance?

A couple of approaches conceived to deal with the problem of grade inflation have gained traction in the last few decades, with varying degrees of success and failure. One approach attempts to address grade inflation by adding grade distributions and class GPAs to transcripts. The other caps the percentage of “A” grades or mandates a specific grade distribution.

The first approach—adding grade distributions to transcripts—is intended to give students, faculty, administrators, and employers more information about an individual’s relative academic standing. Such grading transparency, the thinking goes, will make easy course schedules less attractive, encourage academic exploration on the part of students (rather than have them flock to degree programs traditionally regarded as easy), and give hiring managers and graduate school admission officers more insight into applicants’ true abilities. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, for example, has plans to experiment with this approach, albeit a more beefed-up version.

UNC-Chapel Hill has been especially susceptible to grade inflation. In 1967, the average GPA at the North Carolina flagship was 2.49. By 2008 it had risen to 3.21, and 82 percent of all grades were A’s and B’s. Moreover, 40 percent of undergraduates made the Dean’s List in 2008, up from 28 percent in 1995. The Faculty Council had twice attempted to tackle such problems; a proposal in 2000 would have set the average GPA in the 2.6 to 2.7 range, and another in 2007 would have created an “Achievement Index”— a GPA that accounts for course difficulty.

Student protest ultimately nixed those proposals, but grade inflation remained on the faculty’s radar, and in 2011 the council approved a plan for what it calls “contextual grading.” Implementation has been postponed, most likely until the fall 2015, because of technological issues and because of student and faculty concerns regarding the accuracy of the contextual grading data and how such data will be used and interpreted by employers and graduate schools.

Once in place, UNC’s new-look transcripts will show a student’s percentile rank in each course, his or her attempted-versus-earned credit hours, each course’s average GPA, and the number of courses in which the student was at, above, or below the median GPA. Also, professors will be able to compare their grading history with the grading histories of professors in their departments and across the university.

UNC-Chapel Hill’s bold proposal has caused it to become something of a national leader in transcript reform. In Texas, lawmakers are considering legislation, called “Honest Transcripts,” that is modeled in part after Chapel Hill’s planned changes. And while other colleges and universities—such as Indiana University, Dartmouth College, Columbia University, and Eastern Kentucky University—provide basic information about the average or median grade in each class on transcripts, it appears that Chapel Hill’s format will provide much more in the way of context.  

Although the potential benefits of contextual grading may appear obvious, the concept has drawbacks that should foster some caution on the part of university officials wishing to join Chapel Hill’s and other colleges’ fight against “gradeflation.” For example, in 1998 Cornell University began a “truth in grading” policy that required median grades to be posted online (they were supposed to be posted on transcripts, too, but that didn’t happen until recently). Not surprisingly, students gravitated toward classes with higher median grades, thereby exacerbating the problem of grade inflation.

Cornell economics professors studied the “truth in grading” policy in 2009 and concluded that, while the flight to leniently graded courses was very significant, the pattern could have been offset had median grades been published on transcripts. “However,” the study’s authors added, “theoretically, even if information is provided to students and readers of the transcript alike, enrollment into leniently graded courses as well as average grades could increase.” A case from another Ivy League institution, Dartmouth, corroborates that finding. Valen E. Johnson, in his book Grade Inflation, noted that, in the Fall of 1994, Dartmouth began publishing median grades and class sizes on transcripts. Five years later, the percentage of A’s awarded had risen.  

The lesson is that transcript reform is hardly an automatic fix. Andrew Perrin, a sociology professor at Chapel Hill who has been heavily involved in the grade inflation issue, and whose 2009 report detailing the extent of UNC’s inflation provided the impetus for the “contextual grading” plan, told Raleigh’s News & Observer last fall, “My biggest worry about this policy is that it doesn’t go far enough, that it’s not going to be good enough to actually make a dent in the problem we face.” Perrin may well prove prophetic in that regard.

The other common method for checking grade inflation is to cap the percentage of A’s or to otherwise lower average GPAs. In 2004 Princeton began restricting “A” grades in undergraduate courses to 35 percent. The cap achieved its intended effect, but student backlash was severe. As Princeton was reining in high grades, other elite schools were experiencing rapid grade inflation, which some Princeton students argued put them at a disadvantage in the labor market. The cap was eventually removed. Some had hoped that other top schools would follow Princeton’s lead, but it was Princeton that conformed with its peers. 

At Wellesley College in Massachusetts, a rule requiring average grades in introductory and intermediate courses to be no greater than 3.33 (“B+”) was implemented in fall 2004. A recent analysis of that policy shows that Wellesley saw a 30 percent decline in the number of students majoring in the “easy” subjects—a positive development. However, professors began to receive lower ratings on student evaluations and some students argued, as the Princeton students did, that the grading scale hurt their job prospects.  

Attempts to curtail grade inflation are indeed “fraught with unintended consequences,” as the authors of the analysis of Wellesley’s grading policies stated. The pressures to grade inflate are many: to attract students and boost enrollment; to appease graduating students seeking employment; and the desire on the part of universities to be “feeder schools” for graduate programs. There are even “egalitarian” justifications for grade inflation that, unfortunately, some professors and administrators have fallen for.

The methods that some universities have devised to combat those pressures—capping high grades and adding more “contextual” information to transcripts—are problematic. While it may be good for universities to experiment with some of these reforms, they don’t appear to be final solutions to the problem of grade inflation, one that has been festering for decades.