(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.)
There is a genuine crisis in American higher education. Over the past five decades, grade inflation has corrupted our universities—debasing academic standards and undermining morale. To correct this problem, legislation mandating transcript transparency is needed—but higher education has powerful allies in legislatures across America and has largely resisted efforts to reform the system.
In the early 1960s, 15% of all college grades nationwide were A’s. Today, that number has tripled—45% of all grades are A’s. The most common grade awarded in college nationwide is an A.
Today’s students aren’t smarter or working harder today than in the past—in fact, the evidence suggests just the opposite. This led Derek Bok, former president of Harvard University, to note in a 2010 interview that,
“There’s no question that students are studying less… (and) if they are studying less, there has got to be a price to be paid in terms of the amount that they learn.”
Yet, even while studying less, 75% of all the college grades earned by students today are either A’s or B’s. Studies show that students reward easier-grading professors with better teacher evaluations, which are crucial in deciding faculty tenure, promotion, and salary.
The trend toward grade inflation got rolling in the 1960s. Professor Stuart Rojstaczer traced the fall of C’s and the rise of A’s to the 1960s and public unrest over the Vietnam War, explaining, “The previous signs of academic disaster, D and F, went by the wayside in the Vietnam era, when flunking out meant becoming eligible for the draft.
Since the 1960s, Rojstaczer determined that grade-point averages inflated at a rate of about 0.15 points per decade—a rate that, if continued, would yield by mid-century a world in which “practically everybody on campus will be getting all A’s.”
Our campuses appear to be located in the mythical Lake Wobegon where “all the children are above average.”
Prof. Rojstaczer goes on to explain that it is “impossible for a professor to grade honestly” because awarding C’s to students who do merely average work, though just, will yield “declining enrollments in future years.” The administration would see this as “a sign of poor-quality instruction.” Not to mention the pressure from both students and parents who expect high grades.
Rojstaczer argues that as a result of grade inflation, college classes today “suffer from high absenteeism and a low level of student participation. In the absence of fair grading, our success in providing this country with a truly educated public is diminished. The implications of such failure for a free society are tremendous.”
As monetary inflation devalues the dollar, grade inflation debases the currency of education: student transcripts. No surprise, grade inflation makes it increasingly difficult for would-be employers to distinguish truly excellent students from those who have taken courses and majors with lax standards.
Grade inflation is most virulent in the humanities, whereas the natural sciences and mathematics have done a better job of maintaining standards. As a result, and as studies show, grade inflation disincentivizes students from majoring in the sciences and mathematics—this, while the nation calls for more STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) graduates.
(This is the first of a four-part series on grade inflation and is based on a paper by the author available here.)