Harvard Is Completely Ordinary When It Comes to Grade Inflation

Join the club. “A” is the most common grade across the country.

National Journal
Dec. 4, 2013, 9:35 a.m.

Sorry, Har­vard, the news you dumped today isn’t all that spe­cial. The most com­mon grade awar­ded at your school is “A”. So what? Wel­come to the club of Amer­ic­an aca­demia. Grades have been on the rise na­tion­ally for dec­ades. And “A” is the most com­mon grade across the coun­try.

Ac­cord­ing to the work of Stu­art Rojstaczer, a former Duke Geo­phys­ics pro­fess­or who is prob­ably the most quoted source on this is­sue, the av­er­age GPA in Amer­ic­an col­leges rose from 2.52 in 1960 to 3.11 in 2006. That’s nearly a whole let­ter grade high­er.

The Uni­versity of Delaware, which I at­ten­ded, gave out a grade of A or A- 40 per­cent of the time in 2009. And that was just the av­er­age across all the col­leges and de­part­ments. Sev­enty per­cent of those tak­ing classes in the Col­lege of Edu­ca­tion re­ceived A’s.

Brown Uni­versity made sim­il­ar news in 2008 when it was re­vealed that more than 50 per­cent of all grades dis­trib­uted were A’s. Yale gives out A’s 62 per­cent of the time. It would be much weirder if Har­vard trended in the oth­er dir­ec­tion.

Keep in mind there’s a huge gulf in the grades of quant­it­at­ive sub­jects like sci­ence and math and more qual­it­at­ive sub­jects like Eng­lish and his­tory. At Delaware, for in­stance, the bio­logy de­part­ment only awar­ded A’s 20 per­cent of the time.

Grade in­fla­tion is only a prob­lem if you think GPAs are im­port­ant. The more you com­pact all grades in­to the high 3.5-4.0 range, the less abil­ity they have to il­lus­trate mean­ing­ful dif­fer­ences between stu­dents.

That’s a good thing for Har­vard stu­dents, as grade in­fla­tion works in their fa­vor, and it’s bad news for every­one else. A study pub­lished in Ju­ly found that, in an ex­per­i­ment, hy­po­thet­ic­al stu­dents from a strict-grad­ing school were ad­mit­ted to MBA pro­grams just 11 per­cent of the time while those from a grade-in­flated school were ad­mit­ted 72 per­cent of the time. That was true even though ad­mis­sions of­ficers were giv­en the in­di­vidu­al grades with the ad­ded con­text of how oth­er stu­dents at that school per­formed.

“People rely heav­ily on nom­in­al per­form­ance (such as GPA) as an in­dic­at­or of suc­cess while fail­ing to suf­fi­ciently take in­to ac­count in­form­a­tion about the dis­tri­bu­tions of per­form­ances from which it came,” the au­thors con­cluded.

So good work, Har­vard! Fi­nally, your stu­dents will be no­ticed.

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