Understanding Grades: Inflation

May 02, 2011

If you pay any attention to discussion about college grades, you've probably heard the term 'grade inflation' before. What does that mean, and how might it impact you?

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By Sarah Wright

What Is Grade Inflation?

Grade inflation is a term that refers, broadly, to the issue of college students earning grades that are artificially higher than they should be. This can be due to an official school policy of ensuring that the average GPA is high, or a practice adopted by individual professors to enhance student satisfaction and create the illusion of better performance. One example of inflation is the fact that Stanford University once had an official policy that no student should receive an F. Inflation can be blamed on several causes, both intentional and unintentional, but the practice is officially banned at several colleges and universities, making it more likely to occur at institutions that have taken no official stance on the issue.

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This may seem like it's not such a big deal - if everyone's doing what they're supposed to, who cares if most people are getting A or B grades? But critics - including students, faculty and administration - feel that inflation dilutes the true meaning of grades. An A is supposed to signify excellent, above-average work, and it's hard to argue that that's what it truly means if almost half of the student body at a given school is earning them more often than not. Even a C isn't supposed to be a bad grade; it signifies average performance, not poor performance. To critics of inflation, earning an A or even a B should be considered an achievement, not a standard state of affairs.

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How Will Inflation Affect Me?

If you are a student at a school that inflates grades, you're likely to have a higher GPA than you would at a school that doesn't engage in the practice. This doesn't mean that you can or should slack off, but it does mean that an A at your school might be a B at another. It might also mean that you aren't getting as critical a response from your instructors. Some schools that inflate grades do so to ensure student satisfaction, leading to what some critics describe as dishonesty when evaluating student performance. If all you care about is graduating with a good GPA, though, this might not really matter to you.

On the flip side, students graduating from schools that do not inflate grades may be at a bit of a disadvantage after graduation. Because their grades are not artificially augmented, students from such institutions are more likely to have lower GPAs than their counterparts from schools that do inflate. This can create a bit of an unfair disadvantage for students with 'deflated' GPAs, particularly when applying for graduate school. Even some jobs may ask applicants to provide their undergraduate GPA as part of the application packet. In these cases, a student with inflated grades may appear to be a better candidate, even if their performance wasn't actually any better.

The Future of Grade Inflation

Princeton University implemented a new grading policy that did away with inflation. In 2002-03, A grades, including A- and A+, constituted 47.9% of all grades at the University. This created institutional discussion about the grading policies at the school, and in 2004, an official policy was developed to address the abnormally high rate of students receiving top grades. According to the policy, up to 35% of undergraduate grades were allowed to be A-, A or A+. As of 2009, the policy seemed to be working, with A grades accounting for less than 40% of grades given.

Based on the success that Princeton has reported with their practice of limiting the proportion A grades, it seems possible that other schools will feel comfortable following suit. Princeton is, after all, an elite institution, and has remained so in spite of its grading policy change. An increased public awareness and discussion of grading practices may also lead some schools to follow Princeton's lead. At the same time, though, many colleges and universities measure their success by the success of their graduates. With grade inflation allowing students to appear more successful than they actually were, some school may be reluctant to give up the practice.

If you're worried about your GPA because you're hoping to apply to law school, here are some tips for other things you should consider.

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