Skip to main content

Deflating the Grade Inflation Scare

A sociologist and an economist look at collegiate grade inflation and find a bogeyman that doesn't frighten them at all.

Remember what it felt like when you were battling for a C in Chemistry while your roommate pulled an easy A in Introduction to Theater?

If you do, you're going to hate a new study of rising grades at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.

Right from the start, Alexandra A. Killewald, a doctoral candidate in sociology and public policy, and Paul N. Courant, a professor of economics and public policy, dispense with the usual harrumphing about falling standards and professors who rain A's and B's on unexceptional students.

"The term 'grade inflation,'" Killewald and Courant say in a sarcastic first sentence of their paper in the summer 2009 issue of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, "covers a multitude of phenomena, some of which are even alleged to be sins."

Looking through an economic prism, the authors interpret grades in part as marketplace signals. With two exceptions, they see the gradual grade increases they found as mostly harmless, a practice that "is costless" to faculty and "makes students happy."

Some teachers can't resist "the opportunity to (in effect) print money," they write.

And about the only time faculty graded tough was in required or high-demand classes with objective tests, with answers that were either right or wrong. Those conditions allowed the professor to grade freely "without the penalty of tsouris from students" who come back and argue, says Courant. "When you get those two things you're likely, but not certain, to get tougher treatment."

To be sure, there is much anecdotal and some statistical evidence of falling educational standards, and numerous fixes tried and suggested - greater numerical specificity, ranking students within a grade, separating teaching from evaluation or limiting A's, as Princeton has done. But suddenly changing practices, so that math grades like English, could be unfair to students and misleading to graduate school admission committees, Courant suggests.

Killewald and Courant fit more neatly into the scholarly camp that sees the very term "grade inflation" as a headline in search of a story, a phantom kept alive by the media with anecdotes from Amherst and Cambridge. A more fruitful idea, skeptics suggest, are studies that examine all the different ways grades are given and used — thus the title of Killewald and Courant's paper, "What Are Grades Made Of?"

Courant had been a provost at the University of Michigan, so he had an interest in the subject. He says the grading study came about when the editor of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, reading another paper on the subject of grades, said, "'Gee, I wonder if there's a supply side to this industry when departments have strategies for giving grades for becoming bigger and smaller.' And I was the economist most likely to acquire the relevant data and still have a friend in the registrar's office."

To work on the study with him Courant brought in Killewald. Both are in the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, where Courant is the Harold T. Shapiro Collegiate Professor of Public Policy.

They looked at undergraduate grades from 25 departments in the college of literature, science and the arts from fall 1992 to winter 2008. During the period of study, grades at the school weighted by credit hours (meaning a grade given in a three-unit course counts as much as three grades in one-unit courses) rose only fast enough, about .01 of a GPA a year, to turn a B (grade of 3.0) into a B+ (grade of 3.3). Not exactly a fast-rising cake left in the oven.

The departmental differences are well known. By tradition and practice, science and math grade hard, using more objective test measures, and the humanities, with interpretative methods of evaluating students, grades easier. Upper-division classes, where students have selected their majors and are good in the subject and better known to faculty, grade easy, too, they say. And grades are used to attract or thin enrollment in classes and departments, with required courses typically grading harder.

Here's one way it plays out. Killewald and Courant found that fourth-semester French and Spanish — the semester needed to meet the school's language requirement — grade hard while upper-level language literature courses taken mainly by majors grade easy (close to A-). That makes sense as faculty play tougher with students in required, or grade-inelastic, classes while going easier on departmental majors.

Otherwise, how to explain the anomalies — such as upper-level chemistry and physics (average GPA 2005-2007 3.28) and philosophy (3.27) grading within a hair of one another? "Chemistry and physics are departments you think of as tough," but at the upper level, they aren't, notes Killewald.

The same logic doesn't apply to English 125, required freshman composition. The interpretive nature of the grades opens the door to pouty students quarreling about their marks. So instead, the department uses the opportunity "to signal the quality of their best students in early classes by giving handfuls of A's and even A+s, along with encouraging comments, while giving good grades to middling students as well," the authors write.

In the bigger picture outside Ann Arbor, there are troubling anecdotes that faculty use lenient grades as a form of social promotion, that professors, imagining themselves to be Dewey's true disciples, kick off new classes by announcing no one's getting less than a B — letting themselves and the students off the hook — that there's no honor left in belonging to some honor societies. LINK

Grading practices, however, belong to individual departments and apples-to-apples comparisons even within a school are hard. The whole idea of grade inflation assumes education can be seen as units of a comparable commodity or that aptitude and measures of performance can be quantified.

"There is no same product for which teachers could be paying either the same price or different prices," writes Lester H. Hunt, a philosophy professor at the University of Wisconsin and the editor of Grade Inflation: Academic Standards in Higher Education (SUNY Press, 2008).

So, if gradual increases in grades aren't a sin against undergraduates or society, any new grading practices should be enacted cautiously. At Cornell, the practice of posting median grades on the Internet, begun more than 10 years ago, has apparently flopped, accelerating the upward march of marks. An updated study of what happened at Cornell appears in the same summer 2009 issue of the Journal of Economic Perspectives. Students, unsurprisingly, tend to spruce up their GPAs with easier-grading electives or courses of study.

No one who is an intelligent user of grades can believe anymore that grading norms are identical across fields, says Courant, and any solution to the problem that ignores that is just dumb. What's more, suggest both authors, an entire cohort of students would be surprised — and an entire cohort of graduate admissions committees might make bad decisions — if math suddenly graded like English or vice versa. "To the extent everybody knows the chemistry department grades harder than English department, people looking to judge chemistry can make pretty good judgments and the same goes for English," says Courant.

Even in a department that grades generously, Courant adds, straight A's are hard to get. And really in any field, it's possible no matter the background-grading standard, a professor can still give a student a bad grade as a wake-up call or a good or great grade as an indicator of high quality. "So it doesn't bother me that math is grading an intro course with a median a bit below B and English is grading where it's about a B-plus," says Courant.

Of more concern, say Courant and Killewald, is when students shop for easy-grading classes. That runs counter to Courant's ideal for university education, which is broad-based and invites students to sample widely. And Courant worries that the differences between departmental grading scares students away from math, science and related professions.

The other problem is that, unlike monetary inflation, grades have an upper bound that bunches everyone tightly together at the top. That may be a good reason to go in the other direction, away from numerical specificity and closer to the system used at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in the Harry Potter book series. Passing grades include Outstanding and Exceeds Expectations, and failing grades include Poor, Dreadful and Troll.

Sign up for our free e-newsletter.

Are you on Facebook? Become our fan.

Follow us on Twitter.

Add our news to your site.