How Grade Inflation Can Hurt College Students

Are American college students getting smarter? If the number of As being handed out at many colleges and universities across the country is any indication, it would appear to be so. But a new study finds that more As is not necessarily a good thing, and not always necessarily earned. The Education Insider discusses why high grades don't always get high marks.

By Harrison Howe

grade inflation

Excellence Too Common?

A recent study by a retired Duke University professor named Stuart Rojstaczer and an associate professor of computer science at Furman University, Christopher Healy, collected both historical and current grading data from 4-year universities. The study found that As are the grade more than 40% of the time at many flagship and satellite universities; by comparison, Ds and Fs represent less than 10%, and in some cases less than five percent, of all grades.

It's called grade inflation, and like most types of inflation, it's not a good thing. But why, you might wonder? Aren't As good? Well, yes. . .but only when they are a true reflection of a student's capabilities and effort. Over the past few decades, it is believed that American colleges and universities have perpetrated the myth that excellence is common and failure is not an option. The percentage of As given out in U.S. colleges and universities has increased by 28 points since 1960.

The perception is that under-performing students have simply been pushed through, getting grades they likely don't deserve. One fear of grade inflation is that if students know an A can be made easily and that the grade is the most common average grade given at the university they are attending, they will tend not to work very hard.

Universities Fighting Grade Inflation Get an 'A' for Effort

Some higher education institutions are putting policies in place to fight grade inflation. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is the latest to recognize the grading problem and address the issue. Beginning in the fall semester 2012, professors will have reports comparing the grades they give to other professors at the university. Transcripts will also indicate the median grade in each course section in which the student is enrolled and an individual student's percentile range for each grade within a particular section.

Princeton University addressed grade inflation back in 2005 and dropped its percentage of As in several disciplinary categories in the first year, in some cases by nearly five percent. Princeton approached the problem by evaluating by exams and problem sets rather than essays, thereby adopting a tougher grading policy. Each department at the university reviewed grading policies and course expectations and ideas were shared among departments to ensure that all disciplines worked to bring grades down.

Still, Rojstaczer and Healy, while applauding these efforts, do not see the problem going away anytime soon. They feel that most institutions simply won't make the necessary changes or oversee the grading system enough to make more than a modest impact. In July 2011, Inside Higher Ed quoted the pair when they predicted that, without any type of national or local intervention, 'meaningful grades will not return to the American academy.'

Sometimes a higher grade is not given when it is justly deserved; learn some tips on how to approach your professor to get him or her to consider changing a grade.

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