January 18, 2005

GPAs get a .76 boost from grade inflation

Chicago students pride themselves on the University's reputation for stingy grading. However, students might be grasping at more fiction than fact: Grade point averages at the University rose from a mean of 2.50 in 1965 to 3.26 in 1999, according to research by Stuart Rojstaczer, a professor at Duke University.

Rojstaczer charted a national trend over 35 years, which demonstrated a 0.15 increase in GPA per decade at 29 American colleges and universities. In his data, which charted the GPA increase at colleges from 1965 to 2000, Chicago experienced a rate of inflation greater than that of most other schools. Despite this significant upward trend, Chicago's average GPA remained below that of most peer institutions.

Charles Lipson, director of undergraduate studies in political science and professor at the University for more than 25 years, has noticed this upward trend first-hand and does not consider it a problem.

"I think the U of C has done a fairly good job of holding the line [on grade inflation], but let's face it, the rising tide of grades nationwide lifts all boats, including ours," he said. "Nobody considers the ‘C' a solid mid-level grade anymore. That's as true at Chicago as it is at other elite universities."

On its Academic Life webpage, the University claims that it has proven immune to the grade inflation that has plagued other elite schools. The website brags that at Chicago, "Not many people graduate with a 4.0." However, Jonathan Hall, professor and chair of Classics, said that while professors in general "jealously guard" their grading autonomy, he was given advice on grading policies as a new professor.

"When I started, I was discouraged from giving lower grades on the grounds that it would severely damage undergraduates who were not concentrating in Classics or history and were intending to apply to professional schools," he said.

Consequently, Hall said approximately 80 percent of the grades he assigns fall in the B- to B+ range, and he reserves "A-" for the best papers and very rarely gives an "A."

Other professors have more methodical grading patterns. Derek Neal, professor and chair of the economics department, grades classes composed of at least 35 students on a curve, so that the median grade falls in the C+ or B- range. Only 10 to 15 percent of the grades he hands out are in the A range, tending towards A-. Neal said that whatever the national trend might be, his grading system has remained unchanged. "I have almost always done the same thing everywhere I have taught including the U of C," Neal said.

Harvard University was criticized in 2001, when the Boston Globe reported that more than 90 percent of Harvard's students graduate with honors.

Rojstaczer reported that Harvard's 1999 average GPA was 3.42. As a result of the widespread criticism, Harvard attempted to deflate its high grades by limiting to 60 percent the percentage of students graduating with honors. Data from 2002-2003 shows these efforts proved ineffective; 47.8 percent of the grades received still fell in the "A" range and the mean GPA remained steady at 3.41.

Many attribute the rise in GPAs to an unwritten agreement between students and professors, concluding that a good grade given to a student is thought to yield a good professor evaluation from that student. Not so at Chicago, said Li Guo, an assistant professor of Classics at Notre Dame.

In March 2004, Guo told Notre Dame's school paper that when he attended graduate school at Chicago and taught classes, he regularly assigned Cs and occasionally Ds. He attributed his more stringent grading system at Chicago to the fact that tenure at the school is not related to undergraduate teaching evaluations as much as it is at Notre Dame. Consequently, professors are not afraid to grade students more rigorously.

Some attribute the national rise in GPAs to an increased quality of students, as demonstrated by a hike in SAT scores over the past decades. The College Board, however, has not yet been able to demonstrate that SAT scores are an accurate predictor of college GPA.

Others point to the growing business of higher education as the cause for the national trend of bloated grades. As students pay more to attend a college, they expect to receive something in exchange—higher grades. This fact is supported by some evidence, which shows that grade inflation at private schools from the years 1965 to 2000 occurred at a rate 25 to 30 percent higher than at less costly public institutions.

Yet another reason provided for grade inflation, initiated in the '60s, is the Vietnam War. Professors at this time might have been more generous in their grading in an effort to help students take advantage of loopholes in the Selective Service System. At the same time, tenure became much more elusive for professors, creating a transient group of academics. These professors could dole out higher grades without fear of repercussions at a particular institution.

Whatever the origins of grade inflation, the consequences are clear to most employers and graduate schools. When grades are compressed at the top of the grading scale, only gross gradations can be interpreted. It becomes harder to distinguish the better students from one another, but easy to distinguish the best from the mediocre.

Degrees and honors become devalued when their ability to convey information about the quality of the students is undermined by grade inflation. As a result, many graduate schools are looking to more standardized forms of evaluation—most commonly, standardized tests.

Many argue that a degree from a university able to hold its own against grade inflation would be more valuable in the academic marketplace.