(Author’s note: In response to my 10/29/19 Forbes piece, “Death to Merit —College Admissions Process Descends Into the Abyss,” a number of readers asked me to expand on a subject I mentioned in the course of that piece—grade inflation. What follows distills my research over the years on this subject.)

Why should we care that 45% of all grades awarded in college today are A’s, with 75% being A’s and B’s? The most important reason to care is that it is leading to both mediocrity and cynicism in our institutions of higher education.

George D. Kuh of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment, and an Adjunct Professor at the University of Illinois, explains the real-life consequences of easy grading as a sort of “disengagement compact” between students and professors. His reasoning is as follows:

“‘I’ll leave you alone if you leave me alone.’ That is, I [the professor] won’t make you [the student] work too hard (read a lot, write a lot) so that I won’t have to grade as many papers or explain why you are not performing well. The existence of this bargain is suggested by the fact that at a relatively low level of effort, many students get decent grades—B’s and sometimes better. There seems to be a breakdown of shared responsibility for learning—on the part of faculty members who allow students to get by with far less than maximum effort, and on the part of students who are not taking full advantage of the resources institutions provide.”

Grade inflation began in earnest in the late 1960s; to end it, we must first gain a correct understanding of the problem. Because, as Texas A&M Professor Valen E. Johnson notes, rigorous grading “demands more effort than lenient grading,” it is vital to properly assess the challenges in reforming the practice. Johnson’s research suggests that:

1.    Differences in grading practices between instructors cause biases in student evaluations of teaching;

2.    Student evaluations of teaching are not reliable indicators of teaching effectiveness and account for only a small proportion of the variance in student learning from student to student and course to course;

3.    High-grade distributions cannot be associated with higher levels of student achievement;

4.    Differences in grading practices have a substantial impact on student enrollments, and cause fewer students to enroll in those fields that grade more stringently; and,

5.    Grading practices differ between disciplines and instructors, and these disparities cause serious inequities in student assessment.

Regarding point No. 4, Duke University conducted an experiment that found a link between students’ expectations of grades and their choices of which course to enroll in, with students “twice as likely to enroll in an elective course expected to be graded at an A- average.” This grading difference between academic fields results in American undergraduate students taking “about 50 percent fewer elective courses in the natural sciences and mathematics than they would if grading practices across disciplines were more equitable.” Not only does this lead to fewer STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) graduates, it also affects U.S. competitiveness—as well as scientific literacy in general, with ramifications for environmental and energy policy in particular.

How, then, to fix it? Professor Johnson make four recommendations, which are drawn from Rosovsky and Hartley’s 2002 study of grade inflation.

First, “encourag[ing] institutional dialogue” is required because, at most schools, it is the faculty that decides on grading policies.

Second, because many professors know little of the comparative grading practices of their colleagues, they should be provided with “more information about their university’s grading practices.”

Third, institutions could take measures to “constrain course grade distributions,” a practice that is “fairly common in graduate and professional schools.”

The fourth of Rosovsky and Hartley’s recommendations to arrest grade inflation is for universities to “include information about course grading practices on student transcripts, a practice followed now by Columbia, Dartmouth, Indiana, and Eastern Kentucky.”

Although Professor Johnson offers thoughtful solutions to grade inflation, he is not particularly sanguine about the prospects for meaningful reform, noting that professors are highly resistant to constraining grades.

As a result, he proposes three more reforms: That students be allowed to “optionally report adjusted GPAs on their transcripts;” that adjusted grades and grade point averages be used to establish honors distinctions; and, that colleges “selectively exclude student evaluations of teaching from instructor summaries” in order to alleviate the currently grade-inflation-incentivizing effect of student evaluations on faculty promotion, tenure, and salary reviews.

With these suggested solutions now outlined, the last of my four pieces in this series will address the status of progress—or lack thereof—on reversing grade inflation.


(This is the third of a four-part series on grade inflation and is based on a paper by the author available here.)