Grade inflation is a serious and ongoing concern for the students, faculty and administrators of higher education because it diminishes the purchasing power of a college diploma and makes it harder to distinguish high-achieving students. An economy that experiences inflation sees the overall price of goods and services rise, which means that a consumer holding the same amount of currency is unable to purchase the same amount of goods due to higher prices. Likewise, grade inflation at colleges and universities across the country occurs when students’ overall grades rise. Since there is a limit to how high average grades can rise, either to an A or A+, grade inflation causes a greater cluster of grades at the top of the grade distribution. The value of a high college GPA, as the value of currency in an inflationary economy, wanes.

Overall, the rise in GPAs awarded to college students began in the 1950s and the trend continues today. In the 1950s, 2.52 was the average GPA for college students attending four-year institutions in the United States. Today, estimates of the average GPA of college students ranges from a 3.1 to a 3.3. The phenomenon is observed in large, small, private and public institutions, though private schools are observed to have marginally higher GPAs than other institutions.

The first significant rise in students’ average grades correspond with the escalation of and mandatory conscription for the Vietnam War. Former Duke professor Stuart Rojstaczer’s research highlights how it was a common sentiment among professors during this era to award higher grades so as to prevent young men from being drafted. The impact of the Vietnam War is reflected in the statistics: grades slightly deflated at the war’s close. Yet, the uptick in grade inflation began again in the late 1980s.

Some attribute the recent trends to the rising cost of higher education. Skyrocketing tuition causes teachers and administrators to treat students more as consumers whose demand for higher grades should be met in order to guarantee that students continue to purchase their ever-expensive product. Others argue that since the monetary value of a college education is higher than ever before–those who earn a bachelor’s degree will, on average, earn one million more dollars in their lifetime than their counterparts who earn a high school diploma–professors feel pressured to ensure that their students are able to compete among other high-achieving students and thus award higher grades.

The triggers of grade inflation may be debated but the phenomenon cannot. Only 9 percent of William Jewell College’s class of 1957 graduated with a 3.5 GPA; 33 percent of the graduating class of 2004 had students ending their college careers with a cumulative 3.5 GPA. According to the Office of the Registrar, the average cumulative GPA at William Jewell College is currently around a 3.3, compared to the average GPA of 2.96 between 1983 and 1986.

Photo by Amy Stroth
Photo by Amy Stroth

Dr. Ed Lane, Jewell’s College Registrar, remarked on these stark statistics: “Grades don’t discriminate like they used to… When everyone is making an A, how do you tell people a part?” says Lane.

As a professor of Chemistry at Jewell for 35 years, Lane knows firsthand that faculty members are largely autonomous in their grading; it is predominately up to the professors to maintain the integrity of the measure of higher education. However, the Office of the Registrar does monitor and compile the data on grades earned every semester and sends its findings to the heads of each department and to the provost of the college. WJC’s Provost, Dr. Anne Dema, says historical and short-term trends are analyzed and discussed on a regular basis.

“Department chairs talk about and are asked to consider why grade distributions might have changed that semester or academic year,” said Dema. “They are asked to be in conversation with faculty about the design of their courses, the evaluation/assessment tools used, and how learning is measured.  These conversations are on-going and will remain on-going.”

Aside from increased communication between faculty and administrators, some universities have actively pursued grade deflation policies and have imposed new grade regulations from the top down. For instance, some college transcripts now include a grade distribution for each class so that employers can better discern the competitiveness of each course and better judge the efforts and achievements of their future employees. Grade quotas have been implemented at other institutions: in 2004, Princeton University’s administration mandated that only 35 percent of grades per department could be in an A range. Though this policy did cause the percent of A’s awarded to fall, it faced considerable backlash from students, parents, alumni and faculty alike. With these mounting pressures, the grade deflation policy was abandoned by Princeton’s administrators in 2009.

Instead of infringing on the autonomy of teachers in the classroom or capping the grades of hard-working students who are learning amongst equally competitive students, combatting grade inflation should remain a collective effort among students, professors and college administrators. Students should demand criticism and opportunities to truly challenge themselves in preparation for an increasingly competitive, globalized job market. Professors and administrators should maintain an open conversation on the standards that students should meet in order to earn the top grades.

“Faculty members have a responsibility to create high quality learning environments, pitched at an appropriate level, use appropriate tools to measure learning, and to create a grading scale accordingly,” says Dema.

In order to safeguard the meaning of a high grade-point average and accurately signal performance, “the responsibility lies with all of us,” says Dema.