Friday, March 20, 2009

More on Grade Inflation and Lake Wobegon Effect

For more than 40 years, grades have risen across universities nationwide. The Raleigh News and Observer reported Jan. 25 that 82% of all grades given to undergraduate students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill were As and Bs in Fall 2007, and that the average GPA was 3.2. In 1967, the average GPA at UNC was 2.49, according to

Rising grades, however, are notable at Duke and among top-ranked institutions. Back in 1966, for instance, 22% of the grades Harvard University gave to its undergraduates were in the A range, according to a 2002 report by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences assessing grade inflation. In the 2001-2002 academic year, As and A-minuses accounted for 51% of Harvard's grades, with B-minuses or lower accounting for only 12% of grades.

Similarly, in the 2000-2001 academic year, 48.9% of grades at Duke were As of any sort, and 19.6% were B-minuses or lower, according to a 2003 Provost report. Duke-specific data for previous years were not stated in the report.

From a three part series on grade inflation in the Duke Chronicle. Thanks to Duke professor and blogger Mike Munger, who provides this quote:

Dr. Nancy Major, associate professor of radiology and evolutionary anthropology, agrees that if there are many students who merit high marks, they should be rewarded accordingly. Major, who has been teaching undergraduates since 2004, said she gives mostly As, an occasional B and does not recall ever having given a C.

"I teach a very different kind of class," she said. "On the first day I tell everyone what's expected of them to tell them how to get a decent grade in the class. And for me a decent grade in the class is an A."


At 3/20/2009 8:29 AM, Blogger ExtremeHobo said...

When I entered college it also severely pissed me off that several kids had high GPAs because their High Schools offered several classes that graded on a 5.0 scale. It seemed completely unreasonable that my GPA was compared to their's for admission

At 3/20/2009 8:38 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's like Spinal Tap: "My GPA goes to 11."

At 3/20/2009 9:11 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Isn't another reason for grade inflation due to a grade floor? In UM MBA program you have to maintain a B average in order to continue so in practice a "B-" is the same as an "F." Correct?

At 3/20/2009 9:24 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If Harvard is a better school, then they ought to be able to get more of their students up to "A" level.


At 3/20/2009 9:28 AM, Blogger ExtremeHobo said...

It's like Spinal Tap: "My GPA goes to 11."

hahaha, perfect analogy

At 3/20/2009 10:17 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Have employers mindsets changed since the 50's and 60's? Was there a time when just simply having a degree was worth something because of the work it required whereas now it takes more of a wow factor (e.g. a high GPA) to get an employer's attention when looking through stacks of applications and resumes? Alternatively, have employers changed in response to grade inflation?

I guess my question is one of the chicken and the egg. Is grade inflation a response to changing employer demands or vice versa?

At 3/20/2009 10:28 AM, Blogger ExtremeHobo said...

I would say, based on my limited experiences, that employers dont even check up on GPAs. It seems to only matter when you want to go to grad school.

At 3/20/2009 11:04 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good point, ExtremeHobo. I should reword the question to apply to grad schools (whether they've changed or have been changed). Also, that leaves open the questions about grade inflation for the student population that doesn't go to grad school.

At 3/20/2009 11:05 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

I think that if a student has done the homework, tests, papers, and projects to show that they understand all of the material, then they should get an A. If they did enough to show they understand most of the material, then they should get a B. I see no issue if all the students get an A, or all of them fail as long as the scoring is consistent and reasonable.

Once a student has paid their tuition and signed up for a course, they are typically working pretty hard to earn their grade such that they get a return on their investment. Of course there are many notable exceptions. Grading on a curve to force a minority to get top grades and some to get low grades is patently unfair.

If grades are being raised for raised-grades' sake then that is bad, but it will hurt the students and the school pretty quick when those students go to work or other schools and they do not know the material for which they got an A.

At 3/20/2009 12:26 PM, Blogger RamtaJogi said...


Dr. Perry,

I love your blog and I thought I would share two interesting links which showcases how well capitalism works and why liberty and freedom is important.

1. Cost of food has decreased since cold war. Very interesting picture and statistics:

2. How legalizing Prostitution worked out so well in New Zealand.

At 3/20/2009 1:23 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I understand the grade inflation at elite or hard to get into colleges. I don't think a true bell curve applies to their students. If,only the top 10% of grads from high school can get into College A vs. 95% for College B, then you are splitting an A-F range for excellent students vs. average students. Students in the top 10% of a high schools are all very intelligent, high achieving students. Therefore, they would be able to earn mostly high grades at an elite college. For example, if my child attends a private high school that only admits from the top 10% of kids, then the last student in ranking is still in the 90th percentile of students. Should they be dished out an F at a college just because there are no students there that test below the 90th percentile? Grade inflation at average colleges is much less understandable because those colleges quite often have remedial or less than average students. A bell curve might be much more appropriate in such a situation.

At 3/20/2009 4:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

We career educators know all too well that this is one of the oldest and most endlessly-debated issues in education: Should students be graded by "norm-referenced" or "standards-referenced" criteria? The problem is, there are compelling arguments on both sides of the issue. Historically, our culture subscribed to the bell curve and never expected ALL third grade students to be reading at a third grade level, since that level was an "average". Not understanding that, politicians and other non-educators have successfully redefined "grade level" to represent the minimal standard for all students without regard to inherent academic aptitude! Of late, the MI legislature now expects ALL high student to excel in higher mathematics for four consecutive years and this will soon prove to be a major problem no matter how conscientiously some students apply themselves.

At 3/20/2009 5:15 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Give out good grades to suck the kids in and continue paying the overpriced tuition/books. When endowments go down tuitions go up, endowments go up Tuitions go up. Most college administraters are worse then the Executives at AIG and Enron.

At 3/20/2009 6:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Grade inflation tells only part of the story. In 1967, only about 20% of high school grads went to college, and only about 20% of them got As (4% of the high school grad population). Now, almost 70% of high school grads go to college, and over 40% of them get As (28% of the population). If course difficulty and grading standards had remained the same over the past 40 years, the average GPA of college students should have fallen (due to the huge influx of less intelligent students). These results show that college courses are much less difficult than in the past, and they are much, much easier to ace.

I believe that a BS degree at a top-notch college today is equivalent to an associates degree from a mediocre community college in 1969. Others believe the same, and there are professional programs, especially in the health sciences, that now require a masters degree instead of a BS.

At 3/20/2009 6:41 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Has everything been held constant for these comparisons? Maybe the curriculum just got easier.

I graduated from a four-year-college a few years ago and never had to take a math class or show any mathematical ability (my community college had a math requirement to get an associate’s degree). Would that have been the same requirement for a bachelor’s degree 30 years ago?

If grade dispersion is really so important, grading on a curve is the simple solution. Maybe a few bold schools should try it—most law schools grade that way.

At 3/20/2009 7:09 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The power of universities comes from their monopoly of credentials. As Richard Vedder so deeply understands in his “Going Broke by Degree,” they are the only institutions allowed to separate young individuals by IQ and by the ability to complete complex tasks. They do not add value to that, except in technical fields. Recruiters do not pay premiums because of what the Ivy League or the flagship state universities teach in English, history, political science, or sociology. They hire there despite, not because of, that. Recruiters do not pay premiums because our children have been sent to multicultural centers for sensitivity training. Recruiters pay premiums for the value already there, which universities merely identify. So long as recruiters pay premiums, however, it is rational for parents who wish to gain the most options for their children to send them to the university with the most prestigious degree. That will not change in the current scheme.


At 3/20/2009 7:31 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It seems many students know less coming out than going in.

They may be attending some of the best universities in the world, but students at UC Berkeley and Stanford don't know much about history, according to a study released Tuesday.

Neither, apparently, do students at many other universities.

A study of more than 14,000 randomly selected freshmen and seniors at 50 colleges found that students scored poorly on a series of multiple-choice questions designed to test their general knowledge of American history, government, foreign affairs and the economy.

Students were given 60 multiple choice questions on wide-ranging topics in American history, from the Founding Fathers to the Persian Gulf War. At UC Berkeley, freshmen averaged 60 percent on the test, while seniors scored 55 percent. Stanford's numbers were slightly higher, with freshman averaging 62 percent, and seniors averaging 63 percent.

The study rated UC Berkeley second from last in a ranking it created that assigns a "learning rank" to schools based on students' scores. Berkeley was one of 16 universities, many of them among the most prestigious, that earned a "negative learning" rank because freshmen scored higher than seniors. UC Berkeley earned a negative 5.6, followed only by Johns Hopkins University, with a negative 7.3.


Not to worry, they aced the section on marxism.

At 3/22/2009 1:06 AM, Blogger Mister E said...

Grade inflation lulls the slackers into a false sense of security. Real Life doesn't grade on the curve. Often, if you're not right, you're dead...

At 3/24/2009 9:35 PM, Blogger GW South said...

ExtremeHobo - I completely agree. I took 6 classes my senior year, 5 of which were APs and I had an average of a B+. That would have been an A+ average if my school practiced a 5.0 weighted GPA scale.
I know kids far beneath my college GPA who had much higher high school GPAs because they could get an A+++ in high school just because it was an AP, which often was no harder than a regular course.

At 3/30/2010 2:18 PM, Blogger Stephen M. Stillman said...

I'm most troubled by Benjamin's comment which suggests that if you did all the assignments and exams, then you deserve an A. Some students do a much better job on papers, presentations, exams, etc. and they clearly have learned much more than others in their class. It is on this basis that differentiated grades are assigned. They should not be treated as customers- they are students!

Also, to KKP, there are slackers at Harvard just as there are slackers at the local community college. I wouldn't assume that every person admitted to Harvard, Duke, or Stanford is smart and therefore deserves an A. As a professor, I get especially annoyed with the brightest students who fall short of their potential by not doing their work- and there are plenty of them!

I'm with Dr. T- Grade Inflation has gotten much worse in recent years than most realize because the pool of students has greatly expanded, reaching into parts of our society that would never have gone to college in the past. Many of them have arithmetic and literacy problems, and yet they get high grades in spite of their serious scholastic limitations. I've been a witness to this for many years!


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