Thursday, May 10, 2007

Is grade inflation really a problem?

I keep hearing about what an enormous problem grade inflation is for our colleges and universities. As the above graph (courtesy suggests, grade inflation is real. GPAs are increasing by something like .15 points per decade, on average. And I've seen solid quantitative evidence for this occuring in my own school.

But why is this a crisis? After all, currencies usually experience modest inflation, and unless it becomes rapid inflation, it's generally not considered a problem. You could buy a loaf of bread for a dollar twenty years ago and you really can't now. Big deal - our incomes have inflated, too.

Isn't it the same with grade point averages? As long as prospective employers and graduate schools are aware that GPAs are higher than they used to be, they can adjust expectations accordingly. And regardless of inflation, a person with a 3.8 GPA, all else being equal, is more likely to get hired than someone with a 3.7. Who cares what those scores would have been 20 years ago?

Granted, it's not exactly like money, since GPAs have an upper limit of 4.0. So what has happened is that the range of GPAs has narrowed - more folks are clustered up in the mid 3s than previously. But again, so what? Why is one distribution of grades better than another, so long as better students are still getting higher grades?

One concern, though, is that grade inflation is not uniform. As points out, schools like Stanford have seen lots of inflation, while Cal State Hayward has really held the line. In that sense, the schools aren't necessarily comparable. A Stanford student graduating with a 3.8 will be preferred over a Hayward student with a 3.4, even though the Hayward student would possibly merit a 3.9 if her school had experienced Stanford-level inflation. But were the different schools' GPAs ever directly comparable? And if you're weighing two job applications, one from a Stanford student and one from a Cal State Hayward student, are you really looking at GPAs?

Help me out here. Where's the crisis?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I realize this is a very old post, but this issue has become relevant to me recently as I am about to graduate from Purdue University and have been applying to graduate school and internships, competing with students from all over the world to be selected. Look at the placement of Purdue on the chart (0.02, 26), and the placement of Indiana on the chart (0.25, 26). We're rivals, comparable in academics, and employers are visiting both campuses looking for recruits. The problem is that Purdue grade inflation is relatively non existent over the past 25 years, while Indiana has inflated their GPAs by 0.25 points over the past 25 years. If employers and graduate admissions committees are not aware of the issue of grade inflation, Purdue students are at a disadvantage in the recruitment and admissions processes. In the more extreme case, look at U Washington and Washington State. The gap is absurd. Grade inflation is a serious problem in that some Universities have no shame in making their students look smarter to recruiters and graduate admissions committees, while other Universities have the integrity to be honest to their students and honest to the people on the outside about their students' grades.