Why Universities Are About To Regret Their Massive Grade-Inflation Policies

Universities across the US are engaging in a massive, grade-inflating Ponzi scheme which will destroy the value of a University degree in a matter of years.

I have recently reflected on why I don’t feel an immense amount of satisfaction when I receive an ‘A’ in my college classes, and the truth is that obtaining an ‘A’ at an American University is far too easy in today’s undergraduate culture.

The problem is not the fault of the students, but instead has been propagated by a financially-driven University system which is poorly incentivized, prizing short term income and prestige over long term value-generation and integrity.

Let me posit the argument I am making:

  • • Due to the immense financial burden of obtaining a University degree in the USA, students are performing a cost-benefit analysis and are only attending University on the assumption that their degree will help them find a top-paying job that more than makes up for the cost of attending.
  • • Given this high level of expectation, Universities are forced to engage in grade-inflation in order to ensure that their students achieve the high grades necessary to obtain a top-paying job, or face difficulties in attracting prospective students for future years.
  • • As grade inflation becomes the norm, employers struggle to distinguish applicants based on their GPA, and instead look for alternative ways to instantaneously filter out the weakest candidates.
  • • With a GPA no longer contributing to a student’s employment prospects, the value of a University degree is severely reduced, damaging the value of a University education.

Yes, there are a number of caveats to this argument, but in general I think it holds that the rise of exorbitant tuition fees have helped to fuel grade-inflation on a mass level. A piece of news from the Harvard Crimson recently went viral when it was revealed that the most common grade awarded at Harvard is an ‘A’, which the New York Times complemented with a story about how the most common grade nationwide has been an ‘A’ or ‘A-‘ since 1997.

I don’t believe that I should be able to sit down and write a 5 page paper, with no revisions, in 3 hours and receive an ‘A’, in subjects as wide-ranging as “the limits of the Capital Asset Pricing Model” to “a critique of Emmanuel Kant’s Deontological moral framework”. By being more lenient in their grading, professors are doing their students a disservice by fostering a culture whereby students are disappointed if they don’t receive an ‘A’, and stopping the best students from producing their finest work by incentivizing them to turn in work that is just “good enough” for an ‘A’.

What can be done to stop the implosion?

There are two roots causes of this problem – the spiraling cost of University tuition in the US, increasing the pressure on professors to reward a high number of ‘A’s, and the inefficacy of a Grade Point Average as a system for measuring a student’s employability.

While all Universities continue to inflate grades, no single institution will be able to make a difference by curbing their policies without damaging the prospects of their students and their own reputation. Instead, we need to initiate wide-scale reform that will produce a better measure of a student’s employability, while maintaining the institution’s integrity.

Let’s start a conversation, both amongst ourselves and with our University’s administration: what can be done to stop the impending implosion of the value of a University degree?

What do you think?

Until next time!

Ross Garlick


7 thoughts on “Why Universities Are About To Regret Their Massive Grade-Inflation Policies

  1. Well rambled. Couldnt agree more. I think one of the key problems with the current GPA is the lack of standardization. Even within the same school for the same course- some professors are much easier than others, making comparability impossible. I think all universities should do away with GPA and instead all professions which typically require a degree should go the way of accounting (CPA) and Finance (CFA) or Law (Bar) and have standardized exams for a licensing process. Students would be incentivized to pick schools which better prepared them for the exams (read: harder) and would not fear a rigorous course load because performance on exams/essays would be marginalized in importance compared to these standardized exams. This also removes the incentive for students to exert themselves for busy-work, as students will only engage in assignments which further understanding and prepare for the exams. This should free students for more creative/entrepreneurial/career-focused activities which will enhance their career preparation process.

    I have this much further fleshed out but I am procrastinating on one of those “busy work” final exam essays which I am submitting a week late and expecting an A on :p – I’d love to discuss this further tho…

  2. Great post and comment — I agree with you both. Would love to hear more of what you’re thinking @David, it sounds really interesting.

    Here are some of my thoughts:

    ➀ I don’t think reform within the current system will work well. You’re spot-on to the short-term causes, @Ross, and I think there will be plenty of institutions willing to slug it out and avoid this problem till the end.

    ➁ I am 100% for certifications/exams versus GPA prioritization. With two inclusions…

    ✪ The tests not be “study-able” in the way many standardized tests are (i.e. static curriculum, proven strategies, guaranteed improvement through tutoring, etc) but rather that they’re agile, relevant, and broad/demanding enough to truly glean a student’s mastery. Easier said than done, I know, but these tests could potentially be graded blindly, by faculty from a range of institutions, and with more than one round of grading per test. The creation of the test questions could also be done in a very collaborative, creative, and useful way.

    ✪ There has to be a way to prioritize “participation/community”. Many of school’s benefits come from socialization, group work, the consistent deliverables required, and the classroom setting. These are all applicable to the workplace as well. I’m worried that if weight shifts purely to the certification/testing model, that it would take away the need for anyone to do work or show up to class.

    This challenge may also be its own opportunity. Perhaps students could receive some sort of “participation/commitment” score in their classes (along with comments) that is the result of attendance, effort, community-building, and collaboration. While imperfect, it could provide a balancing metric to standardized tests — allowing employers to see who works hard, who works smart, and who cares.


  3. I agree with both of you that the current GPA system is flawed. David’s suggestion of focusing on certifications leans towards the concept of “hard skills” as a measure of a student’s employability, which has always existed in certain industries (Computer Science, Law, Medicine etc…) but could definitely be expanded upon to different subjects. Even less systematic and binary subjects such as philosophy or english could take a similar approach and judge a student based on the quality of their research and critical writing ability rather than offering multiple choice quizzes etc…

    Jackson suggests an alternative approach that also incorporates personal characteristics that are deemed relevant to employers. Yes, this creates a system which is highly subjective and qualitative, but I agree that it is essential to offering a complete snapshot of who the student is, rather than simply how well they take tests.

    Perhaps we could leverage a system similar to the SAT Reasoning test which offers a single score which is then broken down into its components. What if we instituted a system which incorporated the following:

    1. Academics – basically the current GPA system, but focused more on hard skills as mentioned above.
    2. Character – judged by 40 professors over a 4 year University career, I think a fair measure could be attained as to a student’s personability, enthusiasm, punctuality, drive and passion etc…
    3. External Assessment – if you undertake an internship, an employer should be able to score you based on your employability and ability to perform under pressure/in a professional environment etc… If you have not obtained an internship, this part of the score could be ignored, just as the “Writing” portion is often ignored from the SAT score.

    Placed alongside the traditional GPA score on a resume, employers would hopefully begin to recognize the value of such a score. Students who are too busy working (e.g. both David and Jackson) to score 4.0’s could then have that work accounted for, as well as students who work hard all year and are talented, but suffer in an exam environment.

    I didn’t incorporate Jackson’s ideas about a different style of testing, but I’m sure there is room for that under this system also.

  4. I largely agree with everything that has been said so far. I’d add that a possible alternative to the traditional GPA system would be evaluative grading. Such as system has been successfully utilized at schools like the New College of Florida and St. John’s College (Annapolis). It seems that this system successfully incorporates some of the components that Ross suggests above. To relate a short anecdote, here at The College of New Jersey, one infamous history professor didn’t give A’s out for something like 5 yrs. Furthermore, he refused—I’d say wisely—to give his brightest student, who later went on to pursue at Ph.D at an Ivy League school, an A. His reasoning for this was simple: The moment a professor gives out an A, a student feels as if he has reached some sort of apex. Yet, it is the professor’s job to constantly push the student to achieve more. Praise is healthy, but giving out too many A’s does indeed do a disservice to the student and ultimately reduces the value of an undergraduate degree. Grad school grade inflation is a different story—a discussion for another time.

  5. Okay first off, to respond to Steven’s comment above me…. that is an asinine reason to not give an A. What if every professor thought that way and only gave a B as their highest grade? In turn, everyone would shoot for a B, and the GPA system would would simply just adjust itself to having a 3.0 be the highest GPA possible. I agree that a professor shouldn’t give out A’s like they’re candy, but a professor never giving out an A in college class seems to me like more of an attempt to make a name for themselves than anything.

    Next, when I receive an A in one of my classes, it reflects the amount of hard work I put into each one of them. It rewards my efforts and entices me to work just as hard, if not harder, with every class I take following it. While there are some lower level classes that seem far to easy to get an A in, I also consider my learnings prior to that class. Sometimes it may be that I am too advanced in my education of the subject to be taking a class at such a low level, and therefore easily get an A in the class. (Example: Calc, English101, Accounting101, etc., are all classes I got A’s in because I had already taken them in high school.) However, the few outliers aside, I can’t say that an A is an attainable grade with little effort in my average college class.

    Being an Accounting and Economics double major, I can’t say that I attain any A’s in an above 100 level class without a good amount of effort. Also, being an accounting major, I can not advance to the next course in my major’s schedule without receiving a B- or higher in the class. Yet, these classes are some of my hardest to attain good grades in, even with the extra incentive for a teacher to automatically give students higher grades. Because of this, I’m inclined to ask the author what his major is (excuse my lack of effort searching for his major if it is offered somewhere) and whether he thinks if the act of “curving” grades is done more so in other majors than others.

    I say all of this because in my experience at college, I have been consistently challenged by the majority of my professors. My honest opinion is that majors that require QUANTITATIVE answers, found at a QUALITATIVE level, leave less room for a misrepresentation of grades, and also creates a more conservative average grade. Again, this is what I have found to be true in my own experiences, and I’m sure many have had ones that oppose my view.

    1. Hi Dan, thanks for commenting. I welcome the diversity of opinion. I 100% agree with your first paragraph, and that an ‘A’ shouldn’t be unattainable.

      I’d like you to define what you mean by “amount of hard work” you put into each class? I can understand that you probably spend a lot of time studying for midterms and finals, and a lot of time working on projects or homework etc… I do the same thing. However, I know that if I spend 10 hours productive studying in the library (productively being the operative word) I will get an ‘A’ in that exam. A lot of the time I go back to the textbook and reteach myself concepts that didn’t make sense in class etc… etc… So, essentially I am teaching myself a course in 10 hours and then getting an ‘A’ on that course.

      You mention needing a ‘B-‘ in order to advance to your next course for your Accounting major – do you not think that fact in itself is indicative of the grade-inflation I am talking about? A ‘C’ is supposed to represent an “average” grade for a class. Your accounting major policy suggests that only those who are above average at Accounting are actually able to complete all the courses and graduate. Answer me this: do you see 50-60% of all Accounting majors being unable to progress to the next class for failing to get a ‘B-‘ in a class? In today’s University system, students consider a ‘C’ grade to be a poor grade. If you look at the graph in the NYT piece I linked to in the article, a ‘C’ was the most prevalent grade awarded nationwide until 1965; today, roughly only 15% of grades awarded nationwide are a ‘C’ while more than 40% of grades awarded are an ‘A’ or ‘A-‘.

      For your reference, I am an Applied Accounting and Finance major. I definitely believe that curving occurs more prevalently in certain disciplines than in others. I don’t believe in curves because it grades students relative to one another rather than allowing them to attain the grade that they themselves have earned. If I am in a class and I am aware that I am smarter than all the others, what incentive do I have to push myself; similarly, if I am in a class where I try really hard but other students seem to understand the material far more easily, I have no incentive to push myself because no matter how hard I try I will still be worse relative to the other students in my class.

      The point of my essay wasn’t to belittle the hard efforts made by students to achieve ‘A’s’ in all their classes, rather that Universities are allowing for grade-inflation because their incentive structure is misaligned, and that if no reform is made then ultimately they may end up devaluing both yours and my University degree.

      What do you think?

  6. Dan, let clarify that I was not suggesting a system that would not grant A’s to top performing students. Also, my comment was directed towards the humanities, where precise scores are not common. To echo Ross’ point, I am not asserting that students who get A’s don’t need to work hard, but rather that many schools tend to give out too many A’s and I further suggest that evaluative grading could remedy this issue.

    Any thoughts on eliminating a GPA system altogether for the humanities?

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