How to Fix College Grade Inflation

January 3, 2014

Harvard professor Harvey Mansfield stirred up controversy recently by criticizing the rampant grade inflation at his institution. But grade inflation isn't just a problem at Harvard, says Sita Nataraj Slavov, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

  • A recent study of 200 colleges and universities found that more than 40 percent of all grades awarded were in the A range.
  • Some have argued that these inflated grades are necessary to help students get ahead in a competitive job market.
  • While that might be true for an individual professor or university, at the national level grade inflation is a negative-sum game that imposes serious costs on society.
  • Therefore, universities need to take steps to bring it under control.

Under regular inflation, prices can rise without limit. However, because grades are capped at A or A+, grade inflation results in a greater concentration of students at the top of the distribution, diminishing their value as an indicator of student abilities. Without grade inflation, a truly outstanding student might be awarded an A, while a very good student might receive a B+. With grade inflation, both students receive As, making it hard for employers and graduate schools to differentiate them. There is also evidence that lenient grading reduces student effort.

Professors face strong pressure to award inflated grades. The solution has to come at the level of the university. A promising approach was adopted by Princeton in 2004.

  • The administration issued a guideline that, on average, no more than 35 percent of grades awarded in undergraduate courses should be in the A range.
  • The guideline is not a rigid quota, and it provides professors with the flexibility to award more than 35 percent As if a particular class deserves it.

It's not clear how it is enforced. But it seems to have been successful in lowering grades. Unfortunately, however, Princeton appears to be reconsidering its policy.

Economist Tim Harford has proposed an alternative solution: make grade inflation more like price inflation by uncapping the highest grade. In other words, grade inflation would be less of a problem if the entire grading scale could shift upwards over time, thereby decompressing the grades at the top. Under such a system, today's B becomes tomorrow's A+, tomorrow's A+ becomes the day after tomorrow's A+++, and so on. Employers and graduate schools could simply deflate grades the same way that economists deflate prices in order to compare them over time.

Source: Sita Slavov, "How to Fix College Grade Inflation," U.S. News & World Report, December 26, 2013.

 

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