Although grade inflation is nothing new by now, it continues to generate many articles in the media. Inside Higher Ed ran a fascinating article on the topic back in March ("Grade Inflation Seen Rising", March 12, 2009), noting for instance that: "[A] new analysis found that the average grade-point average at private
colleges rose from 3.09 in 1991 to 3.30 in 2006. At public colleges and
universities, the increase was from 2.85 to 3.01 over the same time
period." The study is due to Stuart Rojstaczer, a retired Duke University professor who authored an op-ed in the Washington Post in 2003 ("Where All Grades Are Above Average", January 28, 2003) and more recently created the website GradeInflation.com to gather his findings.
While the Washington Post op-ed takes somewhat extreme views, as many op-eds do (the author states that he no longer gives Cs and neither do most of his colleagues; Ds and Fs are - he says- avoided even more strenuously at his institution), it gives interesting statistics and makes valuable points. ("This trend of the dominance of the A and the diminution of the C began
in the 1960s, abated somewhat in the '70s and came back strong in the
'80s. The previous signs of academic disaster, D and F, went by the
wayside in the Vietnam era, when flunking out meant becoming eligible
for the draft.")
The Inside Higher Ed article gives the example of Princeton, which has apparently tamed grade inflation, and of Brown, which supposedly has not. (More information on the Princeton case is available on this Wikipedia page.) It also mentions another analyst who is critical of Rojstaczer and believes grade inflation to be "marginal." My favorite part of the article is about the absence of grade inflation Rojstaczer has observed at community colleges, which I comment on below.
Rojstaczer reiterates his stance in a new op-ed - this one in the Christian Science Monitor, dated March 23, 2009 ("Grade inflation gone wild")
- and worries students give minimal effort. ("A recent survey of more than 30,000 first year students across the
country showed that nearly half were spending more hours drinking than
they were studying. If we continue along this path, we'll end up with a generation of
poorly educated college graduates who have used their four years
principally to develop an addiction to alcohol.") This has certainly not been my experience in the classes I have taught; I like to think that students in career-oriented majors such as engineering or accounting also care about doing their job well after graduation, and study not only for the grade but also to avoid embarrassing moments once they are left to their own devices in the workforce. Besides, first year students can hardly be viewed as a representative sample
of the college population. They are on their own, often for the first
time, and eager to enjoy it. Answers would certainly be affected by the time in the school year when this survey was administered - in particular, whether it was before or after the grades of the first semester became available.
Also, I believe required courses and electives should be analyzed separately. My guess is that, at least for engineering students, the average grade given becomes higher as the student progresses in his college career. As an academic advisor at Lehigh, I have heard again and again from students and from the administration that GPAs tend to increase as (engineering) students make their way toward graduation: first-year courses help identify students who would be better off pursuing a non-engineering major; sophomore courses help identify students who made a mistake choosing that specific engineering major. Juniors and seniors can pick more electives and hopefully select topics they are truly interested in, which motivates them to get good grades. (The prospect of impending graduation and the importance that companies give to GPAs also act as powerful motivators.) I am not convinced at all that grade inflation is at play. This being said, Lehigh did raise its threshold to make the Dean's List from 3.5 to 3.6 a few years back, and to graduate with honors (from 3.25 to 3.4), high honors (3.5 to 3.6) and highest honors (3.75 to 3.8) at about the same time. This makes the accomplishments of students who do graduate with honors all the more impressive.
The extent of grade inflation at the college level remains open to debate, with some universities making occasionally the headlines for the wrong reasons. (In October 2001, the Boston Globe revealed 91% of Harvard students graduated with some kind of honors - see this New York Times article ["Debate at Harvard asks if its As are too cheap," December 5, 2001] which mentions the report. Harvard has since taken steps to curb grade inflation.) As a potential solution, Rojstaczer suggests university-wide guidelines (recommendations rather than rules) on the percentage of As to be given in a course - an approach Princeton has followed with success.
Another fascinating point is that Rojstaczer found no evidence of grade inflation in California's community college system, the data of which he analyzed extensively. A community college president interviewed by Inside Higher Ed provided two possible reasons: (1) "community colleges use grades to track how their students
do when they transfer to four-year institutions" and (2) "because community
colleges admit students with a range of academic backgrounds, accurate
assessment is seen as important to help students enter the best
possible programs and to track their progress." Furthermore, a community college professor explains that her students "are focused on how improving their writing will help them
professionally, and they want to see that the course will give them new
skills they can use, not a letter grade." This is quite similar to the situation in engineering and other career-oriented majors at four-year institutions.
Assuming grade inflation continues to be a concern, we might see prospective employers require a ranking of the students in the same major - possibly not a precise ranking, but at least a percentile number. Ranking, though, introduces an element of competition, which goes against the trend of team projects and other collaborations now prized at the college level, on the grounds that they better prepare students to working in teams in the workforce.