Is Grade Inflation A Problem in Higher Education?

Is Grade Inflation A Problem in Higher Education?
Beth Dumbauld

There’s a theory floating around higher education that grade inflation occurs and is a problem. Is there any truth to this assumption? Evidence shows the average GPA and letter grade has been rising for decades. A look at this graph from gradeinflation.com, a website that tracks grade inflation in American colleges and universities, demonstrates the issue:is grade inflation a problem

(Image courtesy of http://www.gradeinflation.com/tcr2012grading.pdf)

As you might imagine, numerous studies have been done on the topic of grade inflation and the reports reveal several reasons for grade inflation:

  • The Vietnam War contributed to GPA inflation. Male college students who flunked out of school or dropped out due to poor grades were subject to being drafted to fight the war. Professors therefore inflated grades to decrease male students’ chances of getting called to fulfill military duty.
  • Higher education became more consumer-focused in the 1980’s. Colleges transitioned to service industries with students acting as the consumer. Therefore, college instructors had more incentive to grade student work in a way that would increase retention and graduation rates, student satisfaction and graduate’s job opportunities.
  • Students (consumers) have been given the opportunity to provide reviews, ratings, and course evaluations that include feedback about their instructors. Since many college professors don’t have tenure, their future employment could be jeopardized if they receive poor ratings; therefore, assigning higher grades ensures students give their professors higher ratings and more favorable feedback.

What Are Some Solutions for Grade Inflation?

If we agree that grade inflation is real, the next question is what can be done about the practice? This study, which focused on online instructors, suggests some interesting possible solutions. While not all study participants agreed on every solution, a few of these solutions are worth further investigation:

  • Revise student evaluations – some instructors felt student evaluations are merely popularity contests. If an instructor’s job depends heavily on receiving good student evaluations, grade inflation is more likely to occur, so revising evaluations to focus on course content could help.
  • Make exams more objective – instructors felt that essay questions/answer exams encourages students to work for a higher grade, but the grade is often seen as biased since it’s based on the instructors interpretation of the answer. If a student does not receive the grade they feel they deserve, they may publish negative feedback about the course and instructor. Objective, clear and concrete answers to exam questions could mitigate grade inflation opportunities.
  • Take grading exams away from instructors and give the task to an unbiased course evaluator – by removing the instructor from the grading process, students have fewer opportunities to negatively review the course instructor if they are unhappy with grading. Instituting a neutral course evaluator process could reduce grade inflation.

Yes, grade inflation exists and has been a growing issue for decades, but there are ways the practice can be curbed. Creative thinking about revising academic policies and grading processes, as well as removing pressure from instructors to hand out higher grades than students deserve could all go a long way towards reducing grade inflation.

Higher education is in a state of change and keeping your eye on the grade inflation discussion will help you understand your educational experience, enabling you to navigate, learn and grow as you reach your degree.

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