College Guide


December 28, 2010 10:00 AM The Grade Inflation Police

By Daniel Luzer

Some people at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is trying to crack down on grade inflation, the increase over time of American college students’ grades. According to a New York Times article by Tamar Lewin in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

If everybody in the class gets an A, what does an A mean? The answer: Not what it should, says Andrew Perrin, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. “An A should mean outstanding work; it should not be the default grade,” Mr. Perrin said. “If everyone gets an A for adequate completion of tasks, it cripples our ability to recognize exemplary scholarship.”

While this is a little silly (there is very little “exemplary scholarship” at the undergraduate level) Perrin may be working on something interesting. Despite the fact that academics have worried about grade inflation for more than 100 years, there’s some evidence that students’ mean grade point average has increased by about 0.1 each decade since the 1960s.

Perrin is working with his school’s registrar to try and get more information—putting the mean GPA in individual courses on student transcripts—out about UNC grades. While the whole notion of the evils of grade inflation is a little overblown, why not include a little more information?

Still, Perrin is facing quite a task. A whole lot of people at UNC—professors, students, and administrators—will probably want to keep context about grades a secret.

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


  • huntermoon on December 28, 2010 9:43 PM:

    Well, I suspect that this is a case of "selectivity". Students used to just major in something, like nursing or education or business. Now many departments have become "Schools" and require students to be admitted to the school to major in the discipline. I'm sure this all seemed really great back when.

    However, the result is that you can't get into nursing school or education school within the college you've already gotten admitted to without a very high GPA after freshman year. For example, at the u I teach at, students trying to get into the nursing school usually need a 3.8 GPA (a high A average) after freshman year. Freshman year is when students have to take general education courses that they often aren't good at (like physics, or math) and often don't do well, though those courses of course have little to do with nursing (or whatever). Anyway, professors of the gen ed courses are all too aware (and are frequently told) that a C in their course could mean that the student will not get into the school of their choice and thus not be able to even try to get educated in what they hope for as a career. They won't even get the chance to train to be a pediatric cardiology nurse, for example, because they didn't do exceptionally well in Religious History 101, or Business Writing 202.

    This isn't the student's fault, really. Few of us are good at everything. And they're being "weeded out" for reasons that have nothing to do with whether they'll be a good pediatric nurse. It's all about (to tell the truth) the need to restrict the number of students majoring in the discipline because there aren't enough upper-level professors to teach -- or rather, not enough money to pay for that, even as tuition goes up every year.

    Okay, so here you are, teaching a freshman class in whatever, and here's a hard-working, earnest student who does pretty well writing the required business memos and letters, not the best in the class, but pretty good, and she just wants to be a nurse and take care of kids with heart problems. And so she's earned a B+. And that B+ could actually-- yes, really-- keep her from getting into nursing school. So you think, "Hmm. She really improved. And she was great in the class discussions. And she turned everything in on time and revised each assignment to improve it. I could probably justify giving her a couple extra participation points... she'd be a great nurse, and she might save some kid's life, but only if she gets into the nursing school."

    So you give her an A-.

    Just sayin'. Are we really saying that students who would be really good at their eventual career shouldn't even get a chance to get into the (absolutely necessary) professional school (for sophomores!) because they were a little less than exceptional at something else entirely?

  • Alan in Boise on December 29, 2010 5:38 PM:

    I'm a retired mathematics professor from a primarily undergraduate institution and want to address Daniel Lutzer's comment that "there is very little `exemplary scholarship' at the undergraduate level." Over the years, I've had a lot of students who turned in papers that weren't completely air tight, not neat, and hard to read, and a few who turned in papers that were a joy to read--carefully argued and documented, all work shown, and easy on the eye.

    In my estimation, this later group was exhibiting "exemplary scholarship" at the undergraduate level. They were solving problems that were new to them, even if they weren't new to the mathematical community, and they generally earned A's. The former group, who only partially understood the concepts and didn't do a good job of writing up the problems, generally earned C's and I believe that the distinction between the two groups was valid and warranted.

    Commenter huntermoon is certainly correct that disciplines like mathematics are used by quite a few departments and schools to weed students out, even if mathematics is not a particularly good measure of potential success in their disciplines. I understood that and hated it when I was working, but the mathematics teacher's job is to teach the skills and concepts of mathematics and evaluate students' understanding of them, not ensure their entrance into specialized programs.

  • Crissa on December 30, 2010 12:41 PM:

    When a C is considered failing and there is more than a letter grade worth of additional work that can be done in the course... Of course letter grades don't mean what they used to.

    But at the same time, as pointed out in the first comment, schools aren't letting students with Bs or Cs advance or graduate... So why do we have these grades?