Is Grade Inflation Yale’s Fault?

Where academic standards are concerned, colleges are following students’ lead.

Nearly 80 percent of grades at Yale University during the 2022-23 academic year fell within the “A” to “A-minus” range, according to a new report in the New York Times. Has one of America’s most prestigious institutions morphed into a quasi-academic career springboard for our country’s rich and powerful, or is something else to blame?

To get to the bottom of the mystery, the most logical starting place is the year-to-year change in Yale’s grade distribution. These data reveal that Yale’s average GPA has been rising for decades, with a marked post-pandemic increase. Notably, Yale’s average GPA during the 1998-99 school year was 3.42. However, by 2020-21, that figure had risen to 3.74. (It has since dropped to 3.70, showing modest signs of correction.) While this uptick in average GPA during the pandemic arguably resulted from temporarily relaxed grading standards and online schooling, Yale’s average GPA increased just as markedly during the preceding two decades. Something other than Covid is clearly inflating Yale’s grades.

Students stuff their schedules with fluff classes to ensure that their GPAs remain high enough to attract employers or graduate schools.One of the few quantifiable contributors to this rise in average GPA is Yale’s and other universities’ desire to increase graduation rates. In a 2023 study, the Chronicle of Higher Education found that “graduation rates are on the rise” largely because schools are doling out higher grades each year, allowing more students to reach their minimum graduation requirements. When more students reach these graduation requirements, the school’s graduation rate goes up, making the institution more attractive to prospective students.

Another large influence on grade inflation is how students choose their classes. When someone first hears about grade inflation, he or she may immediately criticize universities and teachers for lowering grading standards, but couldn’t students be the real culprits? As a current student at Duke University, I can attest that my peers and I stay away from certain professors or courses. To the extent possible, students stuff their schedules with fluff classes to ensure that their GPAs remain high enough to attract employers or graduate-school admissions departments.

Looked at a certain way, it is in neither students’ nor universities’ interest to retain high grading standards, because the modern professional world undervalues skills and overvalues resumes. Though inflating grades or taking easier classes may undercut a student’s education and make him or her less prepared for the professional world, it does help a student get a job. Indeed, easy classes allow students to take an ever-increasing dose of internships and extracurricular activities. A 2022 Socius study confirmed that the frequency of college internships increased by an astonishing 41 percentage points from 1994 to 2017. Moreover, as my friends and I will tell you, it is more immediately necessary to refine your resume to ensure you get a job than it is to take difficult classes in the hopes they will equip you with the skills you need to keep a job.

In short, schools like Yale are still preparing students for the wider world, but the focus of that preparation has shifted from the pure pursuit of knowledge toward vocational success. That necessitates “inflated” grades.

Sherman Criner is a sophomore at Duke University studying public policy, history, and political science.