By Jon Marcus
It was one of the year's hottest topics in higher education, and convincing evidence of long-suspected grade inflation in the Ivy League: the disclosure that Harvard University was awarding honors to more than 90 percent of its graduating seniors. But an equally dramatic event was occurring largely out of public notice at the Washington University in St. Louis School of Law.
Concerned that its graduates were at a growing disadvantage in a job market flooded with students who were coasting through the Ivies with inflated grades, the law school adjusted its own grading scale. The outcome: Even as Harvard was being forced to make changes to restrain its students' seemingly out-of-control GPAs, the median grade at the Washington law school was inflated from a B-minus to a B-plus.
The faculty approved the change, but not unanimously. Dissenters said they feared a "price war." "It's a way of dealing with the problem that doesn't really solve anything," said one of the skeptics, law professor Richard Kuhns. "It's ironic that when places like Harvard are finally doing something about their grading policies, we've done something that keeps the thing going. The solution should not be to just jump on the bandwagon."
It's a bandwagon that has considerable momentum, however. Grade inflation has been effectively documented by researchers-and disputed by university administrators-since the 1960s. Even the last year's worth of embarrassing revelations, including a report showing that the proportion of straight-A students has quadrupled in the last three decades, seems to be having little impact.
"It's hard to unilaterally disarm," said Valen Johnson, author of the forthcoming book, "College Grading: A National Crisis in Undergraduate Education," and a professor of statistics, who will move from Duke to the University of Michigan this fall. At Duke, Johnson led an unsuccessful campaign to adjust grades by accounting for variations in grading policies of different professors and departments.
Even as evidence of grade inflation has been piling up across the country, few schools seem to be willing to confront it.
Yet grade inflation-or, more accurately, grade compression-can't go on forever. "Unlike price inflation, where dollar values can, at least in theory, rise indefinitely, the upper boundary of grade inflation is constrained by not being able to rise above an A or a 100," said a damning report about the problem, which was authored by Henry Rosovsky, a former Harvard dean, for the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. "The consequence is grade 'compression' at the upper end."
That is precisely what was happening at Harvard. In 1950, just over 15 percent of Harvard students got a B-plus or better. That has since increased to nearly 70 percent. Fifty percent of the grades at Harvard are now A's or A-minuses, up from 22 percent in 1966. The number of C's fell from ten percent to barely five percent, while only one percent of grades are D's or F's. And since Harvard's system has essentially guaranteed honors to any student who received at least a B average, a record 91 percent of seniors last year graduated with honors. Cum laude, a distinction that requires at least a B-minus, was even easier to get.
Under the glare of national publicity after these figures were made public by a series of stories in the Boston Globe, the Harvard faculty agreed in May to award more B's to students, and to raise the academic requirements for honors. Starting with the class entering this fall, the university will cap the number of students receiving summa, magna and cum laude, and no more than 60 percent of seniors will be eligible.
The number of students graduating cum laude will be limited to 30 percent, summa and magna cum laude combined will be no more than 20 percent. Harvard's old 15-point grading scale, under which a B-plus was worth 12 and an A-minus 14-encouraging more A-minuses-was jettisoned in favor of the 4.0 scale in use at almost every other school. Grading patterns outside the norm will trigger an investigation by the department chair.
As dramatic as these changes are, at a macro level they represent something more important: an admission by the nation's foremost university that grade inflation has run rampant. Very few other schools have been willing to make such a concession. Columbia University is one that has. Its Committee on Instruction acknowledged that half of all undergraduates annually were being named to the dean's list, making it "a dubious honor indeed," as Dean of Academic Affairs Kathryn Yatrakis put it. Yet resistance from the student council managed to forestall a proposed increase in the qualifying GPA for two years, until the university agreed to add a footnote to transcripts explaining the change. Beginning this fall, the minimum GPA to make the dean's list finally will rise from 3.3 to 3.6.
Grade inflation "appears to have been especially noticeable" in the Ivy League, the Rosovsky report says. Fifty-one percent of students at Yale are awarded honors, 44 percent at Princeton, 40 percent at Dartmouth, and 42 percent at Brown. About 43 percent of all grades awarded at Princeton and 44 percent at Dartmouth are A's; that's up from 31 percent in 1973 at Princeton, where only 12 percent of grades are now lower than a B.
Yale says it has no grade inflation (though it will not release detailed information on grades), but has imposed a 30 percent cap on the number of graduating seniors who can receive honors, out of concern that the numbers were growing too high. One student who used a fake transcript to get into Yale earned a B average in the two years before he was caught and thrown out, according to his lawyer-better than he had done at the community college he had attended before.
Denials are common in response to allegations of grade inflation. Northwestern University Provost Lawrence Dumas, for example, told the Chicago Tribune that there was no grade inflation at his campus, only to be confronted with the fact that A's and A-minuses comprised 46 percent of all awarded grades, up from 35 percent a decade earlier. Barely one of every six grades at Northwestern is lower than a B.
Dumas began an investigation, but one critic on the faculty, Professor Robert McClory, expects little action. "I don't think anything will happen until a bunch of universities get together and decide a C is not a disreputable grade," McClory said. "One professor can't do very much about it."
Some professors, in fact, do not want to see a change. "I would say that there's not a great deal of interest on the faculty about the situation," McClory said. "Many faculty have sort of bought into the belief that students are paying so much for tuition that they have a right to a good grade. They won't tell you that, but that's the implication, as if the cost has anything to do with it."
Former Harvard undergraduate education dean Susan Pedersen cited faculty fears of being labeled "tough graders" as a contributing factor to the grade inflation there. When he was at Duke, statistician Johnson showed that grades had an effect on increasingly important course evaluations, encouraging faculty to be lenient. "It's clearly in a faculty member's interest to assign grades that are higher than average because they'll receive higher class evaluations from their students," he said.
In a study of course evaluations and enrollment patterns, Johnson found that students expecting an A-minus in a class were 20 to 30 percent more likely to give a favorable review of a professor than students expecting a B. After the course was over, those who did not get the grade they had anticipated lowered their evaluations, while those with higher marks gave more favorable ratings.
Meanwhile, in choosing between two different instructors of the same course, students were twice as likely to choose the one who traditionally gave higher grades. Tough graders not only receive fewer favorable evaluations, Johnson found; they attract fewer students, which means they may be less likely to be rewarded with tenure, promotions or raises.
The study also confirmed that natural science and math professors give the lowest grades, humanities the highest. (Harvard also found this; in its report to faculty, it disclosed that humanities professors were the least stringent graders, effectively giving only A's and B's, while faculty in economics, political science and social science commonly gave B-pluses, and in the natural sciences more C's and D's.)
Johnson proposed that A's awarded by professors at Duke who only gave A's should count less than A's from professors who also imposed B's and C's. The idea was rejected by the faculty. Forty-five percent of Duke undergraduate grades at the time were A's or A-minuses.
"It was very contentious," Johnson said. "All the humanities were against it, the sciences were for, the social sciences were split. There's so much polarization now at Duke between the humanities faculty and science faculty that it's unlikely there will be any reform there."
Faculty fear of negative evaluations, and the mentality that students who pay increasing amounts of tuition are entitled to good grades are only two reasons cited for escalating GPAs. But both threaten to make things worse, as costs continue to rise and an increasing proportion of faculty become part-time and untenured, rather than full-time, making them even more dependent on evaluations by their students.
"Their position is vulnerable from below in the form of student pressure, and from above in the form of the displeasure of administrators," the Rosovsky report says. "This situation is likely to lead to more tolerant grading, a tendency that is exacerbated by high workloads that make it impractical to engage in careful student evaluation."
Nor are presidents and provosts inclined to crack down on high grades, especially at public universities, where funding is increasingly based on enrollment, and legislators and trustees want higher retention rates. "Everyone is concerned with two things: They're concerned with quality and they're concerned with retention. And unfortunately those two things are in conflict with each other," said Peter Lawler, professor of government at Berry College in Mount Berry, Georgia. "So administrators say grade inflation is a problem, but they don't do anything about it."
The Rosovsky study offers other reasons grades are going up, beginning with the student activism of the Vietnam era, when faculty were reluctant to give poor grades to male students who might be drafted into military service if they dropped out of school. "When grading time came, and we knew that giving a C meant that our student (who deserved a D) would go into the jungle, we did one better and gave him a B," one unnamed professor is quoted as admitting. (That situation is repeating itself in states like Georgia, where students are threatened with losing their state HOPE scholarships if their GPAs fall below a certain level.)
Meanwhile, distribution requirements were loosened, allowing students to elect courses that are less demanding, and to drop courses more easily if they are on the brink of getting a bad grade.
Grade inflation began to be documented as early as the 1970s, when Michigan State University researcher Arvo Juola found that the average GPA had increased nearly half a letter grade between 1960 and 1974, with the greatest increases coming between 1968 and 1972. Grade inflation accelerated again from 1985 to 1995. By the mid-'90s the average grade had drifted from a C to somewhere between a B and a B-minus. Nationally, 26 percent of grades are now A's, up from 7 percent in 1970, and only 10 to 20 percent are C's.
Then there is the self-esteem issue. "Some professors hold the view that low grades discourage students and frustrate their progress," the Rosovsky report says. "Some contend it is defensible to give a student a higher grade than he or she deserves in order to motivate those who are anxious or poorly prepared by their earlier secondary school experiences."
Some critics of grades, the report says, argue that they are punitive and harsh. "That's like saying somebody has cancer, but let's not tell him, because it will hurt his self-esteem," responded McClory, of Northwestern. "The damage is fairly obvious: People are not being told how good or how poor they are." He added sarcastically: "Everybody's better than average. They're not getting an honest report of their strengths and weaknesses. They're being told they're all great. People are going out with unrealistic perception of their own talents. You'll never get better if no one ever hurts your feelings."
That's the belief of Harvard government professor Harvey Mansfield, who gives students in his course on modern political philosophy two grades: the one they earned, and a second, higher grade that he reports to the university registrar. A quarter of the students received A's, and none got C's, while under the deflated marks, ten percent got A's or A-minuses and 25 percent got C's or lower.
Not everyone believes that grade inflation is as widespread or dramatic as suggested. Harvard points out that its entering students, according to their SAT and achievement test scores, are better every year, and that many work much harder while in college because graduate school admission has become considerably more competitive.
In British universities, where the proportion of students graduating with a first or upper-second degree has increased from around a third to half since 1988, a study by two economists attributed the rise to a general improvement in the quality of students as measured by A-level results, and a significant increase in the enrollment of women, who they concluded are awarded higher grades. (Men, the researchers said, also tend to choose tougher academic subjects.)
The U.S. Department of Education concluded in 1995 that average grades at U.S. universities and colleges had actually declined between 1972 and 1993. An Education Department study released this summer found that while about 15 percent of students got mostly A's, more than a third received C's or lower. The study included students at community colleges-nearly 40 percent of whom got C's and D's or worse-and private, for-profit universities, but some higher education associations seized on the results as proof that grade inflation is exaggerated.
A preponderance of evidence suggests the opposite. While GPAs were steadily rising over the last 30 years, SAT scores actually declined. One-third of all college and university students require remedial education, and about 40 percent of schools report that this number is on the increase. A study by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA found that only 25 percent of faculty felt that their students were academically well prepared. And in the annual survey of incoming freshmen nationwide conducted by UCLA, only a third reported studying six or more hours a week in high school, an all-time low.
Despite this, A's and B's now account for 80 percent of all grades awarded at the University of Illinois, up from 63 percent in 1967. At Cornell, the proportion of A's has more than doubled in the last three decades, even though "most faculty would be hard pressed to argue that today's Cornell students are demonstrably better than Cornell students in the past," as vice provost Isaac Kramnick told the campus newspaper.
A draft of a report by a committee at Georgetown University said professors there shower A's on students for what is "simply good work....We do not set high enough academic standards for our students and as a result, they are not achieving their full academic potential." Even the University of Chicago, famous for its no-nonsense approach to academics, has seen an increase in GPAs in lower-level courses from 2.5 to 3.26 since 1964.
The consequences? Among other things, a shift in enrollment from the hard-grading natural sciences and mathematics to the more lenient humanities. At Duke, Johnson attributed a 50 percent decrease in the number of students in natural science and social science classes to the disparity in grading. A separate Williams College study found that students chose electives, in part, based on grading patterns. "It allows students to exercise control over their workloads and their GPAs by the way they choose classes," Johnson said. "When they're looking for an elective, they will look for classes with lower workloads. So they end up learning less."
McClory is concerned about the integrity of universities and colleges, which he says hypocritically ignore grade inflation even as they decry academic dishonesty. "There is a certain phoniness that's going on," he said. "We talk about plagiarism, fabrication, and then everybody goes along with this crazy grading system. We're teaching by example a kind of dishonesty."
Some schools would rather switch than fight, however. The Washington University School of Law purposely inflated the median score of its graduating students from 83 to 87 on a scale of 100, to bring it closer to its peer institutions, whose graduates it feared were at an unfair advantage in the job market. "There was a problem for our students in that a lot of comparable schools tend to give higher grades than we do," law professor Richard Kuhns said. "But I think it would have been very easy for us, without having changed the grading system at all, to send out a little note that made a brief comparison of our schools' grades to other schools' grades to show how our students did." The University of Virginia School of Law also increased the mean grade in every course, from a B to a B-plus.
"Every Harvard causes grade inflation everywhere, because there's obviously not a nationwide grading scale, so everyone assumes that a B-plus from Harvard is better than a B-plus at Berry, where I teach," Peter Lawler said. "Now that the GPA at Harvard is a 3.5, how can the average Berry student possibly compete in the world of work? So Harvard really compels everyone else to suffer grade inflation."
Many institutions also say deflating grades will hurt their undergraduates, not only in the job market, but in the competition for admission into graduate schools. Not so, says Robert Sowell, dean of the graduate school at North Carolina State University. Admissions committees "really are trying to evaluate on the total credential-not just the grade point average, but also the standardized test scores, the references, statements from the students about career objectives, portfolios for special concentrations, that sort of thing."
In addition to Columbia and Harvard, a few schools have taken steps to curb their escalating GPAs. They have had varying success. In 1994, in response to an increase in students' GPAs, Dartmouth began to list the median grade for each class next to the student's own grade on transcripts, a move that was meant to encourage a broader distribution of grades. In fact, grades have continued to inch up, and students are now pressing for the median grades to be removed from transcripts. (Columbia's transcripts also list a student's grade along with the percentage of the class that earned the same grade.)
Eastern Kentucky University issues semester reports on grade distribution to show how students fared against their peers. Bryn Mawr, Georgetown and a handful of other schools publicize the average grades awarded by each department to nudge the more lenient toward a stricter grading policy.
Stanford, which dropped the F in 1970, has restored it. The University of Pennsylvania limited the number of students who could receive an A in an introductory economics course to one-third of the class, and required that another third receive a C or lower. The change resulted in intense competition among students, who refused to share notes or help their classmates.
The American Academy of Arts and Sciences report recommends that all faculty be told how their grading standards compare to those of their colleagues, something that is already done at Harvard, Duke and some other schools. It also speaks approvingly of providing broader grading data on the student transcript, and establishing a grading curve in larger classes. A follow-up study is planned.
One Lehigh University professor has taken matters into his own hands. He offered an annual cash award to the colleague who received positive course evaluations even while giving tough grades. The rest of the faculty resoundingly turned him down.
Until more than a few professors, or more than a handful of schools, resolve to end the practice, says Michigan's Valen Johnson, grade inflation is unlikely to stop. "Any institution that adopts reform on its own puts its own students at risk," he said. "So it's going to be difficult for an institution to take the path by themselves."