NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

The Truth About Grade Inflation

February 3, 2003

Although recent exposes about grade inflation have received lots of coverage lately, the issue is not new. A recent report by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences notes that there have been concerns about the problem since at least the mid-1970s.

The roots lie in the vast expansion of college enrollment in the 1960s, as the postwar Baby Boom generation came of age. As the Baby Boomers moved through the universities a number of factors contributed to grade inflation.

  • A key one was the Vietnam War, which encouraged professors to go easy on their male students, lest they lose their student deferment and be drafted into the army.
  • At the same time, education philosophy was changing, causing universities to drop many required courses in areas such as mathematics, science and languages.
  • Reinforcing the inflationary trend in grading was the growth of student evaluations in promotion and tenure decisions for professors.
  • Obviously, students tend to give good reviews to those that are easy graders, and as graduate school became the norm for increasing numbers of college students, there was more of a premium on good grades.

In this sense, credential inflation -- requiring more and more education to do the same job -- has contributed to grade inflation. (See Figure)

Unfortunately, grade inflation is not costless.

  • One consequence is that students are discouraged from taking science courses, where the nature of the subject matter has held down grade inflation, in favor of those in the humanities, where it is rampant.
  • Over time, this has caused universities to drain resources from science programs.
  • Eventually, fewer scientists and less science education will harm economic growth by reducing technological innovation and advancement.

Source: Bruce Bartlett, "The Truth About Grade Inflation," National Center for Policy Analysis, February 3, 2003.


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