On Grade Inflation: What’s in an “A”?

by / 3 Comments / 208 View / September 14, 2014

Often, it seems like there is nothing more consequential than one’s GPA. Our GPAs are inextricable from our transcripts; deeply related to our self-perception. From middle-schoolers vying to gain admission into high school, to graduate students trying to keep their funding, one’s GPA is arguably one of the most significant pieces of personal data in higher education.

Set on a scale from 0.0 to 4.0 (at most institutions), a student’s GPA tells us how well a student has done academically compared to their peers nationwide. Right?

Grade-point-averages, however, are hardly an equitable way to compare students. With average GPAs earned varying widely between different institutions, departments, majors, and professors, a GPA cannot be used as a singular tool to determine an individual’s academic achievement.

Is grade inflation good or bad? Most students I know would say that this is a good thing. The closer our GPAs are to 4.0s, the more confident and reassured we feel. However, grades have further reaching implications than just our feelings.

In 2004, Princeton instituted a well-known grade deflation policy. In review of this policy, a committee published a report earlier this month that ultimately concluded that “one possibility [as of now] was to actually encourage grade inflation, so that the transcripts of Princeton’s students would be more in line with [their] peer institutions.”

However, despite the fact that students have alleged that grade deflation hurts them when applying to graduate school, the committee maintains that there is no “clear evidence that [their] students are actually being harmed by having lower GPAs.”

Additionally, a report published earlier this year by Wellesley College professors addresses many of the same issues regarding the grade deflation policy. One aspect that the report assesses is student evaluations of professors: student evaluations have “contributed to grade inflation because students’ evaluations of their professors set up an implicit quid pro quo with professors offering higher student grades in exchange for higher evaluations—evaluations that are used in tenure, promotion, and merit reviews,” says the report.

Because of this, professors are encouraged to liberally give out good grades. Adjunct professors, in particular, have been known to “use a strategy of ‘easy grading’ to boost their teaching evaluations.” But while some professors feel the pressure to inflate grades, some students feel as though the overall system of grade deflation at Wellesley has hurt them. Students have pointed to “examples of web-based job application systems that will not let them proceed if their GPA is below a 3.5,” the report says.

As panic-mode sets in for most students once they earn below a 3.0, grades are hardly something to be taken lightly. Students have been taught that anything below a 3.0 is failure, the type of failure reserved for those who have partied too hard and studied too little. Grades below a “B”, or even an “A”, can cause a level of visceral fear for students.

Grade inflation contributes to the devaluing of the college degree, some posit. Others say that grade deflation, on the other hand, may hurt graduates in the long run.

And while students and professors alike are forced to participate in the grading game, where everyone’s motives are different, everyone’s still left wondering: what’s in an “A”?

  • Noam

    Adjunct professors, in particular, have been known to “use a strategy of ‘easy grading’ to boost their teaching evaluations.”…… is this susposta be sympathetic to adjuncts or abrasive to them?

    • Lena Johnson

      Seems neutral to this plight of adjuncts: sympathetic but also cognizant of personal faults

  • Dae

    Even though everyone decries grade inflation, let us not forget that some people have academic scholarships that have their renewable contingent on gpas of 2.5-3.5(usually). One of my scholarships my freshman year was contingent on a 3.5 gpa and because I got a C(in calc) i was uneligble to renew my scholarship. If it was a B I would have 3k less in student loans right now