Grade Inflation

By Binyamin Weinreich

It isn’t very difficult to understand how school works. You sit in class, pay attention to what the teacher says, do some reading, and learn information and skills. Then you are given a test of your newly acquired knowledge, and receive a grade based on how well you performed on the test. But it isn’t that straightforward anymore. Educators and researchers have begun to realize that there is a disconnect between the grades students are receiving in their classes and the knowledge that they’re gaining from them.

In a recent study, which appeared in the book Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, written by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa and published by the University of Chicago Press, it was found that 45% of college students show no significant increase in critical thinking, analytic reasoning, or writing abilities after two years of college. And even after four years of college education, only 36% of students were found to have improved their skills.[1]

The problem is greater than most people realize. Average GPA in all American universities has risen from about 2.3 in the 1930’s to 3.0 in 2010, at a rate of about 0.1 to 0.2 per decade.[2][3] Even such well-respected schools as Harvard, Princeton, Cornell, and Duke have been subjects of grade inflation, to an even greater extent than public universities such as Rutgers and Penn State have.[4]

And to top it all off, researchers found that traditional college has in fact gotten easier since the 1960’s, despite the average grade rising since then. The research published in Academically Adrift shows that 32% percent of students do not take even one course that requires more than 40 pages of reading each semester, and 50% don’t take one course that requires more than 20 pages of writing per semester. Students only spend 12-14 hours studying per week, and most of that study is done in groups, which was found to provide fewer gains in knowledge than solitary study.[5]

This is a 67% reduction from the amount of time students spent studying 50 years ago, 40 hours per week, and a nearly 50% reduction from how much studying students did in 2003, 23 hours per week.[6] Yet the most common grade given in universities is now an A, with almost no C’s and very few B’s given out, let alone a D or a dreaded F.[7] But why are grades improving across the board, especially with students studying less and apparently not gaining anything from their classes?

What is Grade Inflation?: The Teacher's Perspective

One answer may be that education has become rooted in the needs of the marketplace, rather than a sequestered ivory tower. To some extent, this is in response to pressure from for-profit universities and online education. More importantly, though, high quality teaching does not bring in government grant money: strong research does. As a result, professors are encouraged to put more effort into their research than into their teaching.

Even the professors who do make teaching a priority face challenges. If a professor acquires a reputation as a “harsh” grader, then he will receive harsh evaluations from students, and enrollment for his class will drop, making it harder for the professor to get tenure, and possibly even raising the specter of being fired.[8]

Finally, according to many professors, modern students are a very entitled lot. [9] They see themselves as having paid for a diploma, not the chance to gain knowledge, and so they don’t want to have to work for a grade.[10] And in a business, the customer is always right.

[1] Jaschik, Scott. "'Academically Adrift'" Inside Higher Ed, 18 Jan. 2011. Web. 5 July 2011. Http://

[2] Rojstaczer, Stuart. National Trends in Grade Inflation, American Colleges and Universities. 10 Mar. 2009. Web. 05 July 2011. .

[3] Rampell, Catherine. "Want a Higher G.P.A.? Go to a Private College -" The Economy and the Economics of Everyday Life - Economix Blog - 19 Apr. 2010. Web. 05 July 2011. .

[4] Rojstaczer, Stuart. National Trends in Grade Inflation, American Colleges and Universities. 10 Mar. 2009. Web. 05 July 2011. .

[5] Jaschik, Scott. "'Academically Adrift'" Inside Higher Ed, 18 Jan. 2011. Web. 5 July 2011.Http://

[6] "Working Hard or Hardly Working? Analysis Shows Decline in Studying Among Today's College Students." Degrees, Schools, Online Courses and Careers - 8 July 2010. Web. 05 July 2011. .

[7] Shepard, Alicia C. "A's for Everyone!" The Washington Post: National, World & D.C. Area News and Headlines - The Washington Post. 5 June 2005. Web. 05 July 2011. .

[8] Jaschik, Scott. "Students Fail -- and Professor Loses Job." Inside Higher Ed. 14 May 2008. Web. 5 July 2011. .

[9] Roosevelt, Max. "Student Expectations Seen as Causing Grade Disputes -" The New York Times - Breaking News, World News & Multimedia. 17 Feb. 2009. Web. 05 July 2011. .

[10] Leef, George. "A Is for Average, B Is for Being There." The John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy. 24 Feb. 2009. Web. 05 July 2011. .

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