College Guide


July 27, 2011 10:00 AM Grade Inflation: So What?

By Daniel Luzer

Grade inflation, the increase over time of American college students’ grades, is a very real thing. In 1991 the average college GPA was 2.93. In 2006 the average college GPA was 3.11.

Mark Bauerlein writes in the New York Daily News that too many As are ruining education. As he complains:

Obviously, when you have a scale with five measures and the top two scores are nine times more common than the bottom two scores, that scale isn’t working. Without a bell-curve range, grades don’t do what they’re supposed to do, which is distinguish students by their performance and certify to others (such as employers) that students have or have not learned the course material.
Employers, then, have a strong incentive to adjust negatively for grade inflation, and there are increasing signs of their backlash against the unprepared graduates colleges are sending their way. A recent report from the National Governors Association said colleges are failing to produce graduates ready for the workplace. It advised governors to demand that colleges bring employers into academic policy discussions and collect assessments of the graduates of specific colleges.

I’ll allow that grade inflation, certainly by any understanding of the idea of the bell curve, occurs. What I’ve never understood, and I’ve never seen anyone convincingly explain, is why it matters. In truth, there is no sign employers or graduate schools have any problem with marginally higher student GPAs.

Exceptional students will stand out no matter how institutions evaluate them and mediocre students, well no one’s ever going to think they’re brilliant or harder working than they actually are.

American companies and graduate programs don’t evaluate candidates based on some theoretically pure bell curve that used to exist in the past; they look at recent college graduates compared to other recent college graduates, and they can tell the difference.

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


  • Dan Janik on July 28, 2011 2:23 PM:

    Surely you're joking. Grades matter as a validation of achievement. For the majority of students, how much they learn is a function of what they have to do to earn a particular grade. If the amount a student needs to learn to earn an A or B is low, the student will learn less than if more is required.

    If you're interested in the relation between grades and learning, please read some of Valen Johnson's research on the topic.

  • Bob M on August 04, 2011 10:41 PM:

    It's not about companies and grad schools: it is about teacher integrity. If that goes, given the lack of integrity in every educational administration, it all goes. The thin red line exists.

  • Ebenezer Scrooge on August 10, 2011 8:50 PM:

    I work for a large soul-less corporation and I'm involved with hiring Ivy products. I don't look at the grades. I look at the undergraduate majors. STEM majors are good, most especially physics. Philosophy majors are good. Business majors are bad.