Why everyone's getting A's

Grade inflation at the nation's colleges and universities is a subject with remarkable resilience: Commentators are reluctant to forget about it, yet few people have taken the trouble to understand the breadth and depth of this phenomenon. Until we do so, solutions will be scarce.

This topic appeals especially to people who graduated from college 20 to 30 years ago, outraged that the degrees for which we remember working so hard now seem to be devalued. But, paradoxically, grade inflation gratifies this audience, for it enables us to recall our college years nostalgically as a golden age when an A was really an A, unlike these degenerate times.

A variety of causes have been suggested for the abundance of A's. Vietnam did it, say some, since college faculties, unwilling to deliver students into the jaws of their draft boards, awarded high grades to help them evade the draft. But too few college students were drafted for this idea to be credible.

Lazy professors are responsible, some suggest. But the country's college teachers work harder than folklore admits, and there is no credible evidence to suggest that higher grades result from faculty negligence.

The plethora of adjunct lecturers who staff much of higher education is blamed. But part-time teachers work so hard for their stipends that it seems unfair to hold them responsible. Colleges and universities allow students to appeal their lower grades and to have them changed or erased, but the majority of appeals have a medical basis and are consistent with a national trend to allow a measure of diminished responsibility to people under severe stress.

Grade inflation is not a recent innovation: it has been around since the academy, in the late 1940s, began to admit an audience different from the social groups that elite colleges and state universities saw as their clientele before World War II. Schools, as they have expanded to meet tremendous demand, have recognized that they have to satisfy their new customers. Grade inflation, moreover, is equally widespread in private colleges and universities, in the public sector and in graduate and professional schools like law, business, and health care (medicine, dental medicine, veterinary medicine).

A number of practical solutions have been suggested. We can raise the ceiling, a method recently introduced in Great Britain. There, in the early '90s, students taking the GCSEs, the national exams for admission to college, were being so well prepared by their schools that A grades were more numerous than seemed reasonable. So two years ago, the British introduced the starred A, an A*, as the highest grade.

We can put a cap on appeals -- one a year, say, and for medical reasons only. This is Princeton's method. We can limit high graduation honors; no longer would everyone with a 3.75 GPA receive highest honors, but only the top 10 or 20 students a year; Bryn Mawr College uses this approach. We can stop granting advanced placement credit for work done in high school, so students take more of their work in college courses where enrollments have been declining. This solution would cut the tendency to give students high grades to swell enrollments. We can annotate the transcript to show that some classes were "easier" than others, as Dartmouth is doing.

So solutions are available, but there is no need for radical surgery. For whom does grade inflation injure? There are no obvious sufferers other than people with a nostalgia for their own college years. As long as there is an eager audience for higher education in this country, some grade inflation will be inevitable and, as we start to control it, tolerable.

Paul J. Korshin, Professor of English, has studied grade inflation extensively in recent years.

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Originally published on April 30, 1998