There's a Good Reason Grade Inflation Is Here to Stay

Because we have trouble separating absolute and relative performance, students facing stricter grading standards are less likely to get into top graduate programs.
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(PHOTO: HEATHER M GREIG/SHUTTERSTOCK)

(PHOTO: HEATHER M GREIG/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Grade inflation has upgraded the gentleman’s C to a B or even an A at many top colleges and universities, but the only school that made a serious public effort to curb rising GPAs appears to be having second thoughts.

A little less than a decade ago, with the percentage of A-range grades handed out at an all-time high of 47.9 during the 2002-03 academic year, Princeton University administrators decided that a new grade-deflation policy would better assess students’ abilities, even out GPAs between departments, and put the school on the cutting edge. The only problem? Not a single college followed suit.

In October, Princeton President Christopher Eisgruber announced that a faculty committee would be taking another look at the policy, which currently sets guidelines limiting the number of As each professor can give out to 35 percent, citing fears it’s scaring off applicants and hurting alumni job prospects.

Though the policy achieved its goals, “concerns persist that the grading policy may have had unintended impacts upon the undergraduate experience that are not consistent with our broader educational goals,” Eisgruber said in his charge to the committee.

Because elite schools are the most likely to have inflated grades, our tendency to take GPA at face value favors students who already have certain advantages. "It’s problematic if we’re trying to create a meritocratic society."

At an alumni event in New York City the evening the grade-deflation review was announced, Eisgruber cited a study published in the open-access journal PLOS ONE in July that provided the first evidence he’d seen that grade deflation might be hurting students, according to the Daily Princetonian, the school’s independent student newspaper.

The study, by researchers from the University of California-Berkeley's Haas School of Business, polling firm CivicScience Inc., and Harvard Business School, suggested deflation-fearing students weren’t just trying to shirk library time—they probably had a point.

Researchers argued that students facing stricter grading standards were less likely to be admitted to top graduate school programs than more leniently graded peers because people have trouble separating absolute and relative performance.

“We should care about who’s innately skilled and successful, but we end up selecting people who do well in the absolute sense, even if they had little to do with their success,” says Sam Swift, a postdoctoral fellow at Haas and the lead researcher behind this study.

In 2006, the Princeton grading policy committee issued a report saying they’d found no evidence the new grading policy had affected students’ graduate school and employment prospects. An annual survey that asks graduating seniors about future plans showed the percentage of students graduating with full-time jobs had increased  between the class of 2004—the last class to graduate with no deflated grades—and the class of 2006, though the report noted that many other factors affect graduates’ job-hunting success in a given year, including the state of the economy.

When Swift’s team conducted an experiment where 23 admissions officers evaluated nine supposed business school applicants from schools of similar quality but with varying grading practices, they found something quite different. Even though the admissions officers had all the information they needed to see which students outperformed their peers, students with inflated GPAs got an admissions edge.

The results “suggest that it is just as advantageous to come from a school with high average grades as it is to be above average,” researchers wrote in the paper accompanying their results.

They also looked at 30,000 recent elite business school applicants. Once again, the higher a school’s average GPA, the more likely their students were to get accepted. A GPA just one standard deviation above average (a difference of 0.17 out of 4), they found, made applicants 31 percent more likely to be admitted rather than waitlisted, or waitlisted instead of denied.

That should sound worrisome to Princeton students. According to www.gradedeflation.com, a website that claims to inflate Princeton GPAs to their Harvard equivalent, a Princetonian with a 3.5 would have the same percentile rank in their class as a Harvard student with a 3.66—just slightly less than the 0.17-point difference Swift’s study equated to a 31 percent reduction in admissions prospects.

The tendency to ignore situational factors that might explain success affects the corporate world, as well, the researchers found. When 129 business executives were asked to evaluate 12 candidates for promotion at an airline based on the percentage of on-time flights at their airport, the executives with the highest on-time rates were rated the best candidates. It mattered far less whether they were responsible for those on-time rates, as candidates who improved performance at chronically tardy airports got little credit for the change.

“With the information we gave them, their expertise, and the high stakes, you’d think they could overcome these biases,” Swift says. “But they’re deeply ingrained in our brains.”

Sometimes, those biases can help us make better choices, like when we don’t have a lot of information about how candidates stack up against one another. But when deciding which students get into a top school or which employee gets chosen for a promotion—the kinds of decisions that have lasting consequences for both the chooser and the chosen—we ought to be able to do better, Swift argues.

Because elite schools are the most likely to have inflated grades, our tendency to take GPA at face value favors students who already have certain advantages, Swift says. “It’s problematic if we’re trying to create a meritocratic society.”

Some have argued that universities that look like lenient graders just have better students. Swift says his team’s research accounted for that by making sure the admissions officers in the study knew all applicants came from schools of equal quality. And in the real world, he says, admissions officers know if you’re coming from a top-tier school. If applicants also get the benefit of a higher GPA because top schools tend to give more As, they’re getting twice the credit, Swift says.

Instead of looking at absolute GPA—inflated or not—we ought to consider relative GPA, Swift says. While GPA distributions can vary school to school, it’s much more informative to know exactly how a student compares to his or her peers.

The easiest fix would be reporting students’ rank on their transcript, not their GPA, Swift says. It’s already common in high schools, where grading policies and scales vary wildly between schools.

But getting colleges on board won’t be so easy, in part because there’s no incentive to be first, as Princeton discovered. Unless everyone deflates, schools that don’t effectively give their students a leg up, Swift says.

On the college discussion forum College Confidential, several prospective members of Princeton’s class of 2017 posted concerns about the grade deflation. Some wanted to know whether it would hurt their chances of getting into a top law school or fellowship program, another simply didn’t want to “spend the college years freaking out about getting bad grades.”

A handful of Princeton students responded to reassure them that grade deflation hadn’t created an atmosphere of cutthroat competition for a more limited pool of As, but they had little else to say in the policy’s defense.

In addition to concerns about jobs and competitiveness, Dillon Sharp, a senior and academics committee chair in Princeton’s Undergraduate Student Government, says he worries grade deflation makes adjusting to college even tougher for freshmen, and could make them shy away from pursuing an interest in a challenging field.

“These are students who have been extremely successful in high school,” Sharp says. “They’re used to putting in the work and getting rewarded, but now they put in a lot of effort and don’t get the A. It can be really demoralizing.”

While the grading-policy review is expected to continue throughout this academic year, according to a university statement, in the meantime, the study’s advice for students is clear: Go for the easy A.

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