Jul 142011

The topic of grade inflation always interested me, since there are so many variables to consider. The New York Times Economix blog has a short piece on a recent study.

From reading the article and the insightful comments as well, it raises many points I have considered before, but raises several new ones.

The important issues to consider when looking at something like grade distribution data can be broken down to a few categories.

Evaluation Metrics

First and foremost when looking at statistical evidence that an event exists is to see whether what they’re measuring even makes sense. In this case, the primary metric–the distribution of grades–is very well documented and indisputable. We are getting significantly more A’s than ever before.

However, some of the metrics used to give reasons why this could be happening are not so indisputable. It cites an earlier study that conclusively found a correlation between private schools and a 0.3 higher GPA as proof that private schools systematically have grade inflation, when controlled for selectivity. It also states that students have been spending less time doing works, as a proxy for how much students are actually accomplishing for the same grade.

Both of these lines of reasoning are flawed.

There could be many reasons why private schools have higher grades than public schools–better teaching environment, financial pressure to issue higher grades, more rigorous selection criteria for selecting students (since the study mostly looked at SAT and acceptance rate for selectivity), and better study environments. Just as in the global warming debate where it’s crazy to take seriously the talk of a wide-ranging unspoken understanding between individual climate scientists to push forth a collective agenda, it’s seems unlikely that there is a collectively shared attitude among private school professors to push grades up any more than those in public schools. ¬†Granted, separating out for-profit schools may yield more interesting results, but having met plenty of professors in both public and private colleges, it seems absurd to imagine that the ones in private institutions are somehow being controlled by unscrupulous administrations, and would be willing to play along with those administrations.

And the use of time spent on working? It measures fact that I can write papers three times faster with a computer than with paper and pencil. I measures the fact that I no longer spend hours organizing note cards and arranging sources when researching my paper. It measure the fact that when I am doing research, or just looking up something I don’t understand, it takes me minutes to search on an online site or database, rather than an hour to find the right books in the library. I strongly believe we are becoming more productive.


I do agree on a few key premises–that competition for students, teaching evaluations, and the reliance of grades in hiring in certain industries all contribute greatly to grade inflation.

The competition for top students is real, and is affected by grades. Since Princeton implemented their bone-headed grade deflating policy, there has been dissent among current and potential students in how it affects them.

Professors also gain tenure, awards, and recognition from teaching evaluations. The importance of these varies from college to college, but more and more schools are implementing mandatory online course evaluation systems that students much complete after every term. This constant feedback almost undoubtedly leads to better teaching overall, but because of the potential rewards attached to good evaluations, and the close correlation between grades and evaluation, professors do have a motivation to hand out higher grades.

After graduating, when looking for jobs, many top employers use GPA as a metric for hiring employees. Many of these companies frame this requirement as evidence that they care deeply about critical thinking and academic pursuits, but many times, the way it is used is a mistake. Companies who say they only hire those with 3.7 or higher GPAs are encouraging grade inflation as well as using GPA inappropriately as a proxy for skill and experience in their field.

Segmentation of Data

Going back to the issue of private and public schools, private schools often have significantly higher tuitions as compared to a public school. The super-elite private schools now all generally have nearly 100% financial aid for families needing it, but the vast majority of private schools do not have the multi-billion dollar endowments and the hundreds of millions in annual donations that makes that kind of financial aid possible. Hence, using acceptance rate to compare selectivity of colleges is not valid, since there are fewer applicants to private colleges. Using objective scores like the SAT are also invalid. Many public schools admit based heavily on objective criteria–SAT scores, GPA, etc. But many private institutions do far more–heavily considering teacher recommendations, evidence of a motivated person, essays, leadership qualities, interviews, and more. Success in college is not the rote study of facts that is often what numbers like the SAT and GPA represents, so these other qualities that are reviewed more often by private schools may lead to selecting higher quality students given the same SAT/GPAs.

It’s also true (perhaps unfortunately) that the vast majority of top colleges in the United States are private. With some of the top students from the country in its courses, it is often the case that almost everyone will do very well in a difficult course. Should we try to average out their grades to a B? As a Stanford Computer Science graduate, and having seen the curriculum and evaluation of other Computer Science programs across the nation, I am actually appalled that many programs would even give a B to a student who does well in some of their courses. The same student would most likely straight-out fail the equivalent Stanford course. Yet, Stanford students are being differentiated into buckets of grades, sometimes based on something as small as a single mediocre problem set out of ten, because we see the dire warnings of grade inflation.

Many people also mention that there is a grading difference between humanities and sciences/engineering. I have observed this as well. I’ve thought of many reasons why this is the case. The most important one–and this will make a lot of people mad–is that in general, humanities courses are just not as rigorous as science and engineering courses. I know plenty of engineers taking graduate-level history and English courses for fun, but I have only once or heard of someone doing it in the other direction. Humanities degrees are also much less useful in the marketplace–this is directly from statistics; not making a value judgement here–so departments are constantly trying to convince students to take their courses as their departments face a constant existential crisis. This leads to far more fluff courses than in engineering, where enrollments are generally very high, and professors are overwhelmed by just teaching the core courses.

I’m not trying to be dismissive of humanities–I actually think that more scientists and engineers ought to take more humanities courses to diversify their view of the world–but from what I’ve seen, there is a gap between the rigor of engineering courses, and the rigor of humanities courses in general.

Quality of Students and Teaching

College admissions have become more competitive as more people have been deciding to get a college degree. A greater supply of college applicants may supply the colleges with better students. If grades are supposed to reflect the true abilities of students, and not a normalized ranking, should the GPA not rise?

There has also been a resurgence in promoting the importance of teaching in schools, as we have realized how bad our education system, and how difficult it is to battle for the bright students. I’m an optimist, so I’d like to think that this focus on good teaching has had an effect in the form of more learning.

Most Probable Theories

Amazingly, there are some very plausible theories for grade inflation that are just not mentioned much. Perhaps it is because these are not as provocative or sensational as accusing the private schools of operating a cabal to put footstools under their GPAs, but in any case, it seems to me like a combination of these almost certainly should explain why we have grade inflation.

The most important reason is just simple escalation, like nuclear warfare. If most schools have a 3.3 GPA, but a few select, “better,” schools are giving out an average of a 3.5 GPA (for any reason, whether it’s because of better students, attempt to get money, etc), the schools with the 3.3 GPA will want to shout to the world that they are relevant–just as relevant as those better schools. They invest money in new centers, new facilities, better researchers, but they would really like to (1) attract better students, and (2) have their students go on to do more interesting things once they graduate so that the school can boast in its marketing material that they have X number of students earning over $100,000 a year just a few years out of college. Whether implicitly or explicitly, grades go up to assist in this. So slowly, the 3.3’s catch of to the 3.5’s. But of course, it doesn’t stop there. There is always a temptation to up the grades just a little.

Once the grades reach a level, it is imbued with meaning. These days, B+ in most places probably means “average.” This is quite unlike the 1940s, when a C was imbued with the connotation of “average.” These days, an A no longer means great, but in most places merely means “perfectly satisfactory.” The only way to say that a student went beyond the call of duty is an A+, which many schools have started assigning a 4.3 or 4.5 GPA, since there’s not much room to navigate from 4. Once these attitudes are set, it’s difficult to reverse them. Reverting back to a C-centered scale, and giving good students B+’s would feel like telling good students that they are average, even though the scale is totally arbitrary.

Conclusion: This is Silly/Let’s have A+++’s

The debate over grade inflation and its causes seems fraught with political agendas and an inexplicable blind eye to probable causes. The debate seems centered not on how it actually affects society (I don’t buy that it does that much), but rather on who’s to blame, and what evil motivations people have.

At the end of the day, the grading scale is arbitrary. Just as in real monetary inflation, as long as the rate is not too high, the current value of $10 or an A is still on a relatively well-defined scale. It’s only when we start comparing values across history does it truly matter. And, if you are comparing someone’s A they received today with an A received 20 years ago, whether for a job application, to assess someone’s character, or anything else, I think that you have more to worry about than grade inflation–namely, your evaluation methods might need some work. Many today are also scoffing a the abundance of A+’s and 4.0+ GPAs. I fullheartedly applaud the addition of GPAs past 4.0. Inflation works because the scale of money is still linear, and the amounts are unbounded. $20 is twice that of $10 no matter what decade I’m in. Grades unfortunately don’t work like that, largely because there’s this artificial cap at 4.0/A. So, let’s increase the range, and then actually be able to reward and differentiate students for exceeding expectations now that everyone is getting B’s and A’s.

I’d love to see transcripts with lots of A+++’s and A+++++’s in the future. Maybe the grading scale will just be transformed into an A1-A7 scale, where the number is how many plusses after the A the student received.

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