Grade Inflation

April 26th, 2004

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

It’s that time of the semester. Students take tests and turn in term projects, and professors hunker down to provide evaluations in the form of grades. I have strongly mixed feelings about the grading process. Some days I’d like to do away with grades altogether, particularly for graduate students. On other days, I can’t imagine doing my job without grades.

My apparent grading schizophrenia results from an awareness that, on the one hand, it is entirely reasonable for students, universities, and prospective employers to receive some metric of performance associated with an undergraduate or graduate degree. But on the other hand, as we in academia go through the annual ritual of evaluating faculty and admitting students based on their grades and standardized test scores, it is abundantly clear to me that performance measures can introduce some serious pathologies into the educational system. And of course there are the profoundly absurd moments following almost every semester when the student receiving an A- or B+ comes in to complain about their grade.

The incentives for grade inflation are not hard to figure out. They are in fact an elephant-in-the-living-room. In many universities, including my own, there is an apparent quid pro quo because student evaluations of their professors are (surprise!) highly correlated with the course grades that the professor gives the student. If student evaluations of a professor’s performance factor into decisions about raises and career advancement it is not too difficult to understand what results: grade inflation.

As Duke University’s Stuart Rojstaczer wrote in the Washington Post in 2003,

“A’s are common as dirt in universities nowadays because it’s almost impossible for a professor to grade honestly. If I sprinkle my classroom with the C’s some students deserve, my class will suffer from declining enrollments in future years. In the marketplace mentality of higher education, low enrollments are taken as a sign of poor-quality instruction. I don’t have any interest in being known as a failure.”

Professor Rojstaczer also developed a WWW site – – where he has documented trends in grade inflation across the nation. While grade inflation is real, some, like Harvard’s Harvey Mansfield think that it is a problem while others, like Princeton’s Jordan Eleenberg, think that it is not a problem.

Most universities must believe that grade inflation is not a serious problem, because thus far they have avoided implementing various, simple solutions. For instance, Steven Landsburg suggested a few in Slate in 1999,

“First, college transcripts could show each professor’s overall grade distribution, allowing employers to interpret each individual grade in context. Then, instead of damaging his colleagues’ credibility, the easy grader would damage only his own. Second, the dean’s office could assign each professor a “grade budget” consisting of a certain number of A’s, B’s, etc. Once you’ve awarded, say, 10 A’s, you can’t award any more till next year.”

Of course, other incentives at work here militate against these solutions, most notably the tendency to identify student as “customers” of the university, rather than as “products” of the university. Consider this comment in 1995 letter to the New York Times from an instructor at Boston University,

“Professors award high grades most often, I believe, to avoid having to deal with angry and self-righteous students and their parents. Over my strong objections one semester, the chairman of my department changed a student’s F (32 out of a possible 105 points) to a passing grade. The justification? Both of his parents are lawyers.”

We can argue back and forth about grade inflation, but it seems to me that debate is fairly meaningless until we confront an even more fundamental question, why do we even offer grades at all? On this point Princeton’s Jordan Eleenberg is right on:

“Why do we grade? Is the point to give students information? To reward, punish, or encourage them? Or just to hand them over to law-school admissions committees in accurate rank order? Until we answer this question, there’s little hope of making sense of grade inflation. It’s as if we were bankers trying to formulate a monetary policy, but we hadn’t quite decided whether dollar bills were a means of economic transaction or a collection of ritual fetish objects.”

I’d say more, but I need to get back to grading.

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