70+ Years of Collegiate Grade Inflation

Everyone is familiar with the fact that grades in American colleges and universities are prone to "inflation" over time, but the data are much more striking when presented as a graph.
We’ve looked at contemporary grades from over 160 colleges and universities in the United States with a combined enrollment of over 2,000,000 students and historical grades from over 80 schools... The rise in grades in the 1960s correlates with the social upheavals of the Vietnam War. It was followed by a decade period of static to falling grades. The cause of the renewal of grade inflation, which began in the 1980s and has yet to end, is subject to debate, but it is difficult to ascribe this rise in grades to increases in student achievement.

In a companion piece, the authors discuss these trends in detail, compare the sciences to the humanities, and note that the same trend is not evident in community colleges.  Of particular interest are links to the data from over 200 colleges and universities.  At my college the GPA was 2.7 in the mid-1960s, and is now nearly 3.5.


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Grade inflation is a problem for those of us that when to private colleges too, especially those of us that went to one that grades tougher than other public schools in the area, the exact opposite of the trend shown here. I was a biology and chemistry major, so getting into rigorous courses kept my GPA down around 3.1. One example is how my Organic Chemistry class average for the standardized nationwide exam was at the 89th percentile. I could have gone to other public colleges in the area and basically received a flat 4.0 looking at how others performed on similar exams. Part of it is also the science field as well as the school for having a lower GPA, but I have seen the damage caused by both grade inflation and assuming private schools are more liberal on giving out higher grades through various interviews.
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I see in this graph where private schools' grade inflation outpace the public schools and I've seen similar results in colleges; all lead to a common thread of the $$$$, particularly as it increases so much every year. If you are paying for it you want to see results regardless of input. As with all things, there are many causes but the common denominator is hard to ignore.

As for employers, most were are blind when weighing majors and grades. In the early 80's I was a physics major and ended with a 2.9 GPA with the tougher curriculum. Though I didn't stay in the science field I noticed that some of my friends who had BA or liberal arts majors and to their credit ended with a very high 3.3+ GPA and fared much better getting jobs in the business world due to their better GPA. Others in a similar boat as me agreed that if we had to do it again would pick an easier major and would cruise in college with a higher GPA given the opportunity. I can see the pressure for higher grades on all counts. Jobs are so difficult to come by today.
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Grade inflation is directly related to the college rankings, but not because of the 'how many students pass' metric.
These rankings play a huge roll in determining how much money a college will get from donations and investments (many colleges have bonds you can buy). They also help to attract new students. As more people start attending college, more of the applicants do not know the reputations of different colleges, so they have to narrow their search down by looking at rankings and what their SAT/ACT scores say they can do. Ergo, the ranking becomes an even stronger force in granting a college the ability to attract 'quality' students (who will either raise the college's ranking or donate lots of money).

In many college ranking schemes, colleges get more 'points' for students going directly on to grad school than they do for students going on to jobs. This was explained to me when I asked my professors why my college's curriculum seemed to *only* prepare me for grad school and not employment. Whenever the number of students attending colleges goes up, the number of students applying to grad schools goes up. So colleges have to find a different way to make their students stand out. If you want your students to stand out to grad schools you give them exciting research opportunities (which costs major $), help them test better (not something you can guarantee), and give them better grades.

So if a college wants to improve its ranking without costly construction projects, grade inflation is the easiest route. It could spend a lot of money on cooler research gigs - which everyone else is trying to do (and if a school doesn't have the most money, how can it win that competition?) - or it could just tell the professors to grade the students more gently.
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larryv, the practice of scaling grades is nothing new. It's called "grading on a curve, and is consistent with the earlier practice of ranking students in each class and assigning grades by rank. In practice, the ranking system can be set so 80% pass, or 90% or whatever.

With a curve, the arithmetic is a little more complex, but you can arrange it so the number who pass is most anywhere you want less than 100%(by varying the "shape" of the "curve"), and remember the "average grade" on a curve is not necessarily the median on which the curve is based.

So when we talk about grade inflation being the result of ensuring that some given percentage of the class passes, it ain't necessarily so.
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