College Guide


March 05, 2010 5:46 PM Another Take on Grade Inflation

By Daniel Luzer


Pundits have bemoaned grade inflation, the increase over time of American college students’ academic grades, for more than 100 years. But a new study indicates that, while students’ mean grade point average has increased by about 0.1 each decade since the 1960s, grade inflation doesn’t affect everyone equally.

Duke University’s Stuart Rojstaczer and Furman University’s Christopher Healy demonstrate in a piece they wrote for Teachers College Record that:

The mean grade point average of a school is highly dependent on the average quality of its student body and whether it is public or private. Relative to other schools, public-commuter and engineering schools grade harshly. These trends may help explain… why undergraduate students are increasingly disengaged from learning and why the US has difficulty filling its employment needs in engineering and technology.

In short, all this discussion about grade inflation seems to be mostly about humanities majors in elite colleges. For students who major in engineering, or attend less selective schools, getting high grades is still tough.

The current grading policy across American colleges would seem to discourage students from enrolling in science or math programs. In addition, according to Rojstaczer, because less selective schools tend to reward lower grades, “these nationwide trends create perverse incentives and disincentives. We essentially reward wealthy students with high grades simply for being wealthy.”

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer


  • Bob on March 10, 2010 6:46 AM:

    I know several engineering professors at a local public university (mostly a regional U) and to a person they take pride in harsh grading and the rigor of engineering over other disciplines (especially the soft sciences). I'm not sure if it's a cultural thing - but that's my anecdotal experience.

    One might argue for grade inflation at more elite schools as a form of leveling the playing field between institutions. The average Yale SAT score is nearly 1500. If you are in the second quartile of a class with 50% having had an SAT approaching 1600, then maybe your C really is an "A" anywhere else. Of course, employers already factor that in to some extent when looking at resumes - but the idea is still valid.

  • winoceros on March 15, 2010 3:04 PM:

    Any admissions staff worth its salt would use z scores (standardized scores) to compare grades across schools. They too know that inflation could skew things. Once there is a "reset" by admittance into another institution, there is a way to set things "equal/fair" again. What happens once the student gets to the new institution is another story.