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Minnesota State University, Mankato
Minnesota State University, Mankato

Grade Inflation

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Grade inflation in higher education has been a hot button issue for at least the last twenty years. Recently grade inflation has become even more significant as some prominent institutions have attempted to deal with their escalating GPAs.

The degree of grade inflation at some prestigious colleges and universities can be staggering. At Harvard in 1992, 91 percent of all undergraduate grades were B- or higher. In 1993, 83.6 percent of all Harvard seniors graduated with honors. At Stanford, typically only 6 percent of all students' grades were Cs. The university, until recently, did not permit an F grade. [10]

At Mankato State, the percentage of seniors who graduate with honors is around 25 percent. The honors' rate for individual colleges ranges between 20 and 40 percent. Last fall term, the average GPA for our undergraduates was 2.93, nearly a B average. The average GPA in the colleges was fairly consistent, ranging from 2.86 to 3.08.

Causes of Grade Inflation

Before exploring some of the causes of grade inflation mentioned in the literature, it is important to define grade inflation. The most obvious definition is that grade patterns change so that the overwhelming majority of students in a class, college, or university receive higher grades for the same quantity and quality of work done by students in the past. A corollary to this definition is the same GPA obtained by students with poorer academic skill (as measured by the SAT or ACT exams). Another less well known version of grade inflation is "content deflation" where students receive the same grades as students in the past but with less work required and less learning. [2]

It is also interesting that grade inflation has not always been the norm in higher education. The period from 1955 to 1965 has been described as a period of grade deflation. The average grade and GPA remained static even though the student body possessed higher and higher SAT and ACT scores. During this period, grading did not rise to reward the better qualified students.

What follows is a list of some of the frequently mentioned causes of grade inflation:

  1. Institutional pressure to retain students. The easiest way to maintain enrollment is to keep the students that are already on campus. The professors, departments, colleges, and even entire universities may implicitly believe that giving their students higher grades will improve retention and the attractiveness of their classes and courses. With students seeing themselves more as consumers of education and more eager to succeed than to learn, the pressure on institutions to provide more success can be persuasive. [3]
  2. Increased attention and sensitivity to personal crisis situations for students. The most obvious example was the Vietnam War era. Poor grades exposed male students to the military draft. Many professors and institutions adopted liberal grading policies to minimize the likelihood of low grades. Some sources cite this period as the genesis of recent grade inflation as the students of that era are now professors.
  3. Higher grades used to obtain better student evaluations of teaching. In an increased effort at faculty accountability, many colleges and universities mandate frequent student evaluations of faculty that often end up being published or otherwise disseminated. These same evaluations play an increasingly important role in tenure and promotion decisions. Faculty members who find themselves in such situations may attempt to 'buy' better student evaluations of their teaching by giving higher grades. While this trade may sound intuitively appealing, most of the studies that explore that relationship have failed to find that grades (whether given or expected) play a dominant role in student evaluations of faculty. [6, p.2]
  4. The increased use of subjective or motivational factors in grading. Factors such as student effort, student persistence, student improvement, and class attendance count in favor of the students who possess these desirable characteristics. This tends to skew grading patterns upwards.
  5. Changing grading policies and practices. The increased use of internships, contract grading, individual study courses, group work within courses, a liberal withdrawal policy, generous use of the incomplete grade, and the ability to repeat courses to improve a grade can all contribute to grade inflation.
  6. Faculty attitudes. A faculty member who believes that grades are a vehicle to please students rather than to recognize and reward performance will tend to give higher grades. Similarly a professor less willing to distinguish superior work from good or average work will tend to impart an upward bias to grades. One source places most of the blame for grade inflation on the shoulders of faculty who have failed in their traditional role of gatekeepers. [8] The implication here is that it is easier to give a good grade than a bad grade for the instructor.
  7. Content deflation. For large public universities, the temptation might be to lower both the expectations and demands in individual courses. A fairly liberal admissions policy, a large number of non-traditional students, and a large number of working students all tempt professors to lower their expectations by reducing the number of textbooks, the amount of writing, and the amount of homework in the course. The goal may be laudable in responding to the particular needs of a specific student body but the result may be inflated grades.
  8. Changing mission. It is also possible that, as some institutions de-emphasize the teaching mission in favor of the research or service component, some faculty may be unwilling or unable to spend their time on grading and evaluation. This lack of attention to grading and evaluation could result in a weakening of standards.


The persistence of grade inflation in the last twenty years or so in American higher education has had some important implications. Some of these are:

  1. A cheapening of the value and importance of both a college degree and academic honors.
  2. The lack of consistent and accurate information to potential employers about the skills of a university's graduates. Consequently, employers place more emphasis on the work experience of college students in the hiring process. This forces students to work more at a job and study less in college.
  3. The lack of honest responses to individual students about their academic strengths and weaknesses.
  4. A continuing upward spiral of grades built on weakening standards as individual faculty members have little or no incentive to fight the prevailing trend.
  5. With the value of a given letter grade or even a college degree devalued by the perception of grade inflation, there will be more pressure placed on faculty and institution to assess in other ways the performance of their students. Indeed, one can see the current trend for classroom assessment by external authorities as an attempt to obtain again meaningful feedback on the quality of student performance. If outsiders do not trust the grades on the transcript, they may require other demonstrations of student learning.
  6. There is at least some anecdotal evidence that there is increasing disparity between the average grades in various disciplines and that students are avoiding disciplines with the reputation for more rigorous grading standards. [13]

Potential Solutions

Certainly one obvious solution to the current debate is for an institution to have a serious discussion about the whole nature of grades and grading. Some discussion about grade expectations for our students would help faculty determine their own grading policy. Still other institutions have experimented with alterations to their traditional forms of grading in the hope on conveying more accurately the nature of student performance. Some of these changes include:

  1. The use of a more finely tuned grading scale. The use of just five categories of grades (A-F) has, in the minds of some, contributed to overall grade inflation. Faculty are more likely to move a borderline student up to the next higher grade with such a system. The use of the plus and minus grading system can address this inflationary tendency as well as more accurately measure relative student performance.
  2. The use of the overall class grade in the transcript. A number of universities in recent years have attempted to provide some perspective on the grades achieved by individual students by annotating the typical transcript. One variation is to note along with the individual grade, the mean or median grade for the class and the number of students in the class. Another variation is to use a grading system whereby the grade for the class is composed of two parts. The first number would be the student's grade in the class and the second would be the overall grade for the class. Thus the grade and the transcript would look like this: 3.0/2.7. This student earned a B in a class where the overall average grade was 2.7.

Richard C. Schiming


  1. Eleanor Agnew. "Departmental Grade Quotas: The Silent Saboteur." Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Conference on College Composition and Communication, San Diego, California, March 31 - April 3, 1993, ERIC Microfiche 358478.
  2. Henry Cohen. "Inflated Grades, Deflated Courses: How Insecurity Induced Compromise" Change Volume 16, No. 4 (May/June, 1984), pp.8-10.
  3. William Cole. "By Rewarding Mediocrity, We Discourage Excellence." The Chronicle of Higher Education Volume XXXIX, No. 18 (January 6, 1993), B3-B4.
  4. Lawrence H. Cross, Robert B. Frary, and Larry J. Weber. "College Grading: Achievement, Attitudes, and Effort." College Teaching Volume 41, No. 4 (Fall, 1993), 143-148.
  5. Simeon Dreyfuss. "My Fight Against Grade Inflation: A Response to William Cole." College Teaching Volume 41, No. 4 (Fall, 1993), 149-152.
  6. Jennifer Franklin, Michael Theall, and Larry Ludlow. "Grade Inflation and Student Rating: A Closer Look" paper presented at the American Educational Research Association, April, 1991.
  7. Barbara L. Farley. "'A' is for Average: The Grading Crisis in Today's Colleges." Issues of Education at Community Colleges: Essays by Fellows in the Mid-Career Fellowship Program at Princeton University, June, 1995, ERIC Microfiche 384384.
  8. Louis Goldman. "The Betrayal of the Gatekeepers: Grade Inflation" The Journal of General Education Volume 36, No. 2 (1985), pp. 97-121.
  9. Wayne Hensley. "System Theory in the Ivory Tower." Paper presented at the Annual Convention of the Speech Communication Association, Miami, Florida, November 18-21, 1993, ERIC Microfiche 368258.
  10. John Leo. "A for Effort, Or for Showing Up" U.S. News and World Report October 18, 1993, p.22.
  11. O. Milton, H.R. Pollis, and J. A. Eison. Making Sense of College Grades San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 1986.
  12. Robert Mullin. "Indicators of Grade Inflation." Paper presented at the Annual Forum of the Association for Institutional Research, Boston, Massachusetts, May 28-31, 1995, ERIC Microfiche ED 386970.
  13. Christopher Shea. "Grade Inflation's Consequences." The Chronicle of Higher Education Volume XXXX, No. 18 (January 5, 1994), A45-A46.
  14. Dwight L. Smith. "Validity of Faculty Judgments of Student Performance: Relationship Between Grades and Credits Earned and External Criterion Measures." The Journal of Higher Education Volume 63, No. 3 (May/June, 1992), 329-340.
  15. L. David Weller. "Attitude Toward Grade Inflation: A Random Survey of American Colleges of Arts and Sciences and Colleges of Education." College and University Volume 61, No. 2 (Winter, 1986), pp. 118-127.