Undergraduate grade inflation

July 19, 2011  |  Statistics

Long term trend of increasing grades

It's a given that some colleges and programs give more A's than others, but according to data collected by Stuart Rojstaczer from about 230 schools, it seems that average GPAs have been increasing overall.

In the 1930s, the average GPA at American colleges and universities was about 2.35, a number that corresponds with data compiled by W. Perry in 1943. By the 1950s, the average GPA was about 2.52. GPAs took off in the 1960s with grades at private schools rising faster than public schools, lulled in the 1970s, and began to rise again in the 1980s at a rate of about 0.10 to 0.15 increase in GPA per decade. The grade inflation that began in the 1980s has yet to end.

This bump and difference in GPA carries with it implications:

These trends may help explain why private school students are disproportionately represented in Ph.D. study in science and engineering and why they tend to dominate admission into the most prestigious professional schools.

Read the full report here [pdf].

Does this mean teachers and professors have been higher grades, or have students gotten better at earning them?

[Grade Inflation via @datapointed]

38 Comments

  • Riiiight, we’re getting smarter and smarter and going down and down in the world’s science standing. I think it’s plainly college’s puffing up numbers to say they’re better.

    • Adam Smith July 19, 2011 at 10:55 am

      I see a rather meager increase in the past twenty years. Also, it is possible for us to be smarter than before and still go down in standings. It only means that other nations are increasing their scores at a faster rate than we are, which makes sense when you see that many Asian nations have only really begun to develop in the past twenty years or so. When you factor this in, the chart becomes much less surprising. Clearly, most of the rise in GPA cam between 1960-1980. Therefore, a “kids these days” argument won’t really work, as much of the difference came when the baby boomer were in college.

  • Laurence Cuffe July 19, 2011 at 1:19 am

    Clearly we are getting better at teaching students who are smarter than before. This is the flynn effect combined with advances in educational theory and should come as no suprise. 8-)

  • Gerard St. Croix July 19, 2011 at 1:37 am

    Atlanta writ large.

  • I’d like to see how this correlates with the average age of college students. With so many non-traditional programs having arisen, perhaps there is a greater proportion of working adults attending college who are focused solely on education and thus doing a better job of it. When I first went to college in the 80′s, I was a 2.5 student, but then when I returned a few years ago as an adult, I had a different perspective and took it much more seriously, earning a 3.9 GPA. Maybe it isn’t the colleges that have changed, but rather the make-up of students?

  • As a professor at a private university I attribute it almost entirely to how grades are interpreted differently now.

    If I give someone a ‘C’ in my class right now it would be viewed not as denoting “average” or “acceptable” performance but rather as “failure” and “mediocrity.” In the distant past a ‘C’ was accepted as the “average” grade and an ‘A’ was seen as a reward for “exceptional performance beyond the call of duty” but now an ‘A’ is seen as “the default grade for someone who did all the homework and demonstrates some competence in the main concepts of the class.”

    More succinctly nowadays almost every student believes they can ‘earn’ or ‘deserve’ an ‘A’ whereas before students went into a class knowing that only the top 2-3 students would receive an ‘A.’

    • Laurence Cuffe July 19, 2011 at 6:05 am

      Sadly, despite my earlier comment, I think Robert has the truth of it. One other factor here is that there is a greater chance now of the teacher being chalenged for having failed to teach when the student does badly.

    • As another private college teacher, I think Robert is onto something but my question is: Is today’s interpretation of grades to cause of grade inflation or the result of it?

      The timeline shows a dramatic increase in the 60′s. Could this be attributed to a Vietnam-era attempt to keep more kids in college and out of the military draft?

      Then things flatten out again in the 70′s and through the mid-80′s. But by then the higher grades were the new norm.

      A lot of small colleges fell on very hard times in the late 80′s (baby bust years) and had to accept just about any students they could get. They also had to find a way to keep those students. Perhaps grade inflation was (is?) a tool to maintain enrollments. As in the 70′s, now the higher grades are considered normal.

      There’s no way to know if my narrative really explains the increase, but it’s a possibility.

      • Adam Smith July 19, 2011 at 11:10 am

        This is most likely correct, as universities are not just institutes of higher learning but, in their own way, businesses as well.

    • When you hand out your syllabus at the beginning of a semester it outlines all of the coursework for the class and the percentage of the students’ grade that is based on each assignment, correct? If a student completes all coursework and achieves a high grade on each assignment with the combined total of points equaling say, 98% of all points possible, then that student has earned an A. How can you complain about awarding that student an A when they have clearly met all the criteria which YOU have set to earn that grade? If you feel that students are earning grades that they do not “deserve,” then it is up to you as the instructor to change your requirements for the course. Of course every studnet can earn an A, if they work their ass off and do everything required of them then they should get an A, why would you copmplain about that?

      • Did you even bother reading his post? The point is that what’s listed on the syllabus is average. Furthermore, I’d like to point out that most A’s are achieved after a generous 10-25% curve, not flat out 98%.

    • D. Buffalin July 20, 2011 at 6:14 am

      Completely agree, Robert. My motto at my academically demanding private college in the early 80′s was ‘Two-point-oh; good to go!’ Now, when students at the prestigious private university where I am employed earn less than an A, they feel they have failed their professor, their parents and themselves.

  • If you analyze the US News and World report data, you will find that
    1) The mean SAT scores of matriculating students at private colleges is higher than the mean SAT scores at public colleges.
    2) If you restrict your attention to colleges for which the mean SAT scores of matriculating students is very high (say, the top 10%), there are about 2 private colleges for each public one.

    If you accept the notion that SAT scores are a proxy for how well prepared students are for college study, then it is not surprising that the mean GPA at private schools are higher than for public. What is not so clear is whether the SIZE of the gap is proportional to the mean aptitude of the students, or whether there is evidence of additional grade inflation at private schools.

    • “What is not so clear is whether the SIZE of the gap is proportional to the mean aptitude of the students or whether there is evidence of additional grade inflation at private schools.

      Isn’t the growing size of the gap the key to the whole chart? The actual GPA’s are moot, as GPA can’t be used to compare the aptitude of students at differing schools. Its purpose is to measure how a student is doing in comparison to others within a single university, and sometimes within one particular major in that school.

      Yes, standardized tests are used to get into college, but the required curriculum of public and private universities differs wildly. I would certainly expect the course load at Harvard to be significantly more difficult than Central Michigan’s, and I would also think Harvard’s med school is more difficult than Harvard’s education program.

      In theory, with aptitude constant, what’s considered an average effort at an Ivy League school should be significantly above average at a state run institution, as the private school is more selective, more expensive and in theory more demanding. But the harder work load should be cancelled out by more capable students, and as long as those grading standards remain constant to aptitude from year to year, both the private and public schools should have similar GPA distributions.

      The growing size of the gap leads me to believe the private schools are either failing to introduce more demanding curriculum as aptitude increases, or they’re decreasing the workload as aptitude remains constant or perhaps even falls.

      • Adam Smith July 19, 2011 at 11:01 am

        However, you have to consider what the Ivy League student wants. They want a high GPA, because that gets one into a good graduate or professional school. A student with a 4.0 GPA from a decent public university will be accepted over the Ivy League student with a 3.0 for graduate/professional school admissions, because admissions is so number oriented. Therefore, the higher tier schools have an incentive to have relatively inflated grades, because many organizations will not consider the difference in school quality as the cause of the difference in GPA. In short, upper tier schools don’t want to lose students to cheaper, easier schools where students can get higher GPA’s.

  • If we’re comparing SAT to GPA, it’s worth noting they “corrected” their scores as well.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SAT#History (1995 re-centering controversy)

  • The math department at my university has a policy that the average GPA for each class should be roughly 2.7. My impression is that most of the professors adhere to it fairly closely.

  • Thanks for printing. Prettiest graph I’ve ever made. Took me for forever to figure out how to put it together in at least a somewhat pleasing way. There’s another graph that has been out and about on the web that comes from our 2011 paper; that one shows how grade distributions have changed over time, but this one from our 2010 paper is much prettier I think. Note well the co-author of this work, Chris Healy, who collected a good number of the data points on this graph. It’s a team effort.

  • I’ll apparently be the first person here to admit to receiving a higher grade in a class than I thought my work deserved. I remember being a little mystified (are all my peers really delivering work that’s not as good as mine?), but as a student paying through the nose and truly working hard, it is rational to not ask too many questions.
    That said, I now realize that my assumption was “Only a few people will earn an A”, so that if I earned an A then I was doing better than many of my classmates. Subsequent conversations with my peers – and confirmed at a national level by the chart above – show my assumption was wrong.
    Finally, as a side note, I recently reviewed a resume that listed a 5.0 GPA….What do you even do with something like that? It just seemed patently ridiculous – am I to conclude that person really is 1.0 GPA smarter than me and every 4.0 student that came before?
    Of course, now that paint and fuel no longer contain lead, maybe our country really *is* getting smarter. Should be easy enough to test that assumption by measuring against other nations….
    Oh, darn. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/05/education/05scores.html

    • Adam Smith July 19, 2011 at 11:09 am

      You forget that other nations are getting smarter as well. In the chart we see that the increase in grades has slowed over the past 20 years, which if we take as a proxy for student intelligence, means that the increase in student intelligence has slowed as well. However, I am sure that in many countries the opposite effect can be observed.

  • As a college student, this is not surprising.

    Harvard, etc. has the reputation of “f*cking hard to get in and f*cking hard to fail out”. Basically, once your in, everyone gets free As to plump up your ego and resume. Other schools, notably business/engineering schools usually have strict curves where 10-20% get As, everyone else gets Bs, and the worst students with no hope get Cs.

    Also, in private schools classes usually consist of 10 kids and a teacher. Let’s just say there’s many more ways to get an A than through good work. Connections > hard work in life. That’s what elite schools teach you. On the flip side, public schools have classes of 800 kids. Grading is essentially entirely objective.

    This pretty much shows in society, where less than capable individuals from “the elite” are able to acquire power and wealth through connections and social influence.

    • Adam Smith July 19, 2011 at 11:06 am

      However, Princeton has a policy of grade deflation, which has managed to slightly lower the mean GPA over the past five year. Funny how that’s never mentioned. Also, it is possible to join the “elite” by working hard in high school, as many elite schools have amazing financial aid. Also, with the success of the Questbridge program, it is easier than ever for disadvantaged students to get into elite school (though of course not easy).

      • I would say Princeton is the exception, not the rule.

        Also, I would contest that working hard in high school gives only the slightest possibility of getting to an elite school. Depending on that definition, many people I went to high school with were as intelligent, talented, or great leaders as people I know/met from Ivies (and even perhaps more so).

        I agree that it’s much easier for “severely disadvantaged” students to get into Ivies (low income, first generation, black, Native American, hispanic, etc.).

        The point is that college selectivity is not based on student quality. It’s based on politics and influence.

  • Note: It would be a good idea to control for other factors like quality of student (SAT score).

  • Though then again, the SAT doesn’t measure anything but basic math and grammar. It’s a scam designed to inflate the test prep industry.

    • Adam Smith July 19, 2011 at 11:03 am

      Name the five most intelligent people you can think of (book smarts, not street smarts), and I can show you five people who have the highest SAT scores of the people you can think of.

      • Not sure what you mean?

        What I mean is that I know people who got perfect 2400s from spending $1000+ and hours on practice SAT exams. Some people I know took it once and got 2200s. Yet, I would consider the latter group much more intelligent.

        The SAT tests students on things learned in middle school and perhaps freshman year in high school. IMO the SAT IIs are a far better measure of students academic performance, even though they are curved so that everyone gets 800.

        But I digress… way off topic :P

  • Although inflation may be involved, there are other factors at play. If an instructor is effective, he or she will have many students who excel; that’s just good teaching. My husband had an interesting encounter when he was a Drafting Instructor at a university, he was in a Physics class with his students, talking to them after their class and telling them about an upcoming test they would be talking in one of his classes. He said “There is no reason why all of you shouldn’t pass this test.” When the Physics professor overheard he said to Will “In that case are you really doing your job?” His implication was that if all of his students were passing his classes, then the classes must not be difficult enough. This is a rather elitist viewpoint I think, it implies that in a university setting, many students both will and should fail. If that is the case, isn’t that evidence of ineffective teaching? How is failing many students and indication of GOOD teaching? Another thing to consider, IQ test performance has also steadily risen over the years, yet no one speculates that this is due to score inflation.

  • See, the private school folks really are smarter. Their grades are higher! What more proof could anyone need?

  • First, as a former professor at University of Maryland, I was much harder in grading than what the stats show and so were others that I know.

    I gave about 10-15% A’s, 20-25% B’s, 45% C’s ( which include C+) and the rest is D’s and E’s.

    Also, I find it interesting that kids who attend private schools have substantially better GPAs than those that attend a public university.

    • For U of Maryland: “This mirrors the Fall 2000 grade distribution pattern in which 41% of all undergraduate course grades were ‘A’s, while 74.3% were in the ‘A-B’ range.” Source: http://www.provost.umd.edu/Academic_Planning/Resources/RegistrarReportToSenateOnPlus-MinusGrading11-03.pdf.

      • Factoid, University of Maryland needs to do something about this amount of grade inflation. 41% is WAY too high.

    • I just wanted to add that when I taught college , my subject was accounting. Generally, accounting and engineering were typically not subject to grade inflation. I think that that this is somewhat still true.

      • You made me curious:
        UM BMGT 326 Accounting Systems 57% A, 38% B
        UM BMGT 321 Managerial Accounting 36% A, 50% B
        UM BMGT 424 Advanced Accounting 39% A, 36% B
        UM BMGT 410 Government Accounting 15% A, 53% B
        UM BMGT 428A Special Topics, Government Accounting 71% A, 24% B
        UM BMGT 411 Ethics in Accounting 48% A, 45% B
        These grades include W’s. Exclude those and the percentages go even higher.

  • Not that I’d assume it would be a driving factor of the inflation, but I’m curious how newer degree programs which wouldn’t have been considered academic enough for colleges decades ago and which have classes widely considered easier than more traditional subjects figure into this, if they were included.

  • It would be helpful to see a breakdown of what majors students are pursuing today versus years gone by. Maybe a higher percentage of students are taking “easy” majors these days (I really have no idea). UW-Oshkosh (my alma mater), is generally regarded as a tougher school than UW-LaCrosse (a “jock school”) and the graphs on the report could be used to support that claim.

  • Laurence Cuffe July 20, 2011 at 2:17 pm

    I think there is another factor here, which is the increasing use of detailed rubric’s is assigning grades. As its much harder to describe such things as “this student has developed a wonderful mathematical intuition and is producing very stylish and innovative proofs” and much easier to say “got the problem set on quaternions completely right “, we end up grading and assigning top grades on less abstract, and more easily achievable criteria.

  • I think it’s decidedly non-trivial to disentangle improving scores and grade inflation. If we normalized this graph along the average though I think we could compare the rates of “progress” in the public and private sectors, information that I think would be meaningful and not particularly readable from this graph.

Unless otherwise noted, graphics and words by me are licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC. Contact original authors for everything else.