May 18, 2001

Grade Expectations

Grade inflation has been a marked trend in both secondary and collegiate education since 1985, or even earlier. In many respects, the upward drift of GPAs can be attributed to changes in pedagogical practices. Nowadays it has become common for teachers at every level to consider the psychology of students when they give grades, sometimes compromising academic standards for the sake of keeping students satisfied with their own performance.

The phenomenon of grade inflation has been found to be particularly pronounced at Harvard, while the University of Chicago has maintained a reputation for not inflating grades. In fact, statistics released by the Office of the Registrar indicate that GPAs at the University of Chicago have been increasing steadily since 1971. Still, grade inflation at the U of C does not match rates at Harvard and other schools.

The discrepancy between rates of inflation at the University of Chicago and schools like Harvard is a cause of concern for many U of C students who are planning to apply to graduate or professional schools. Some graduate schools do take grade inflation, or lack thereof, into account, and adjust applicants' GPAs accordingly. Nonetheless, some students worry that they will not be competitive in graduate school applicant pools, since their relatively un-inflated GPAs appear mediocre when stacked against the academic records of students from other schools where grade inflation is the norm.

While it is admirable that the University of Chicago has not fully fallen in step with its peer institutions with respect to grade inflation, grades clearly are higher than they were 30 years ago. This suggests that faculty members at the U of C have sought to strike a balance between grade inflation and the University's conservative academic principles. Unfortunately, this practice may be more detrimental than beneficial. Students at the U of C might be better served if their grades were inflated as much as those at peer institutions, or not at all. If this were the case, grades at the University of Chicago would be squared with current levels of grade inflation, or so obviously detached from that system as to warrant special consideration.