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How Grade Inflation Hurts Public School Graduates

By Taylor Marvin

Here’s a fascinating graphic that charts the drastic rise in average American college GPAs over the last century:

Source: gradeinflation.com

At first glance, two interesting trends stand out:

  1. While grades have been constantly rising from the 1930’s onward, they shot up between roughly 1965-1975. The average GPA for all schools increased from about 2.5 to 2.9 during this period, and after a brief mild drop have continued to increase since the mid 1980s.
  2. Average GPAs from public and private schools were roughly identical until the 1960s, after which they diverged rapidly. Currently the average GPA for a private university is .3 higher than for a public school, a significant difference.

As a university student at a public school this is troubling. Undergraduate grades are an important component of graduate school admissions and a high GPA can be vital to finding a good job in many fields, especially in this economic climate that makes desirable positions so much rarer and more competitive. Because public school students can expect to have a .3 lower GPA than their private school counterparts, they’re placed at a disadvantage. If employers and graduate school admissions officers aren’t perceptive enough to adjust their grade expectations based on the average GPA of an applicant’s school students from private schools with high GPAs can be expected to do much better than those from public universities. This isn’t a great system- it isn’t fair to those students without the resources to go to private schools where they can expect to receive higher grades, and uncertainty over what a graduate’s GPA actually means defeats the whole purpose of grades as a signaling mechanism and makes it harder for graduate schools and employers to determine which of their applicants are actually the best. There’s also an element of inequality in this. High achieving from poor families are much more likely to attend public schools, which puts them at a disadvantage when competing for jobs against wealthier students who could afford private schools.

But what’s responsible for these trends? The large increase in the rate of grade inflation during the 1960 and 1970s is especially striking. However, there are some interesting events that coincided with it. The 1960s was a time of high college enrollment, and the start of full female entry into higher education:

Source: Pew Research Center

Source: Pew Research Center

As an interesting note, the abnormally high male enrollment during the 1960s is primarily due to the draft during the Vietnam war, which young men trying to avoid the draft and incentive to stay in school as long as possible.

The increase in the percent of young people going to college meant that most schools became selective for the first time. In the first half of the 20th century most public and private universities weren’t selective at all- there wasn’t enough people even going to college to justify turning people away with the resources to attend a university. With more people going to college grades became much more important, because graduates had a much higher chance of having to compete with other graduates in the job market. This environment would create pressure on schools to give out more As and Bs and fail less students, and an increased pressure on administrators to let less students not graduate. Schools responded to these incentives, privates more than publics likely because of their increased reliance on tuition and alumni donations for funding.

This isn’t a healthy trend. GPAs in and of themselves don’t mean anything- their simply a comparison measure, and if this metric isn’t standard across schools it isn’t working as it should. Sure, an employer can probably realize that a graduate with a 3.0 from MIT is a stronger candidate than a 3.9 student from a second-tier state school, but with more evenly matched public/privates this distinction is a lot less obvious. There isn’t a good solution for this problem. As long as GPAs are used as a ranking metric outside of academia schools competing for students will always face an incentive to give out more good grades, and alternative methods like class rankings aren’t popular. Rising GPAs seem to be here to stay.

By the way the average GPA at UCSD has only slightly increased over the last decade, from 3.00 in 2000 to 3.02 in 2008, placing it slightly below the national average. UCSD’s average is also significantly lower than UCLA and Cal’s.

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5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Matt #

    ‘Sure, an employer can probably realize that a graduate with a 3.0 from MIT is a stronger candidate than a 3.9 student from a second-tier state school, but with more evenly matched public/privates this distinction is a lot less obvious.’
    This question hangs over this article. Whilst the graphs are striking, they don’t explain themselves. For example, do private schools simply take in better candidates? What would a plot of intake SAT vs. GPA look like? Do distinct classes in terms of average GPA appear in the broad groups of public/private?
    I don’t have any answers, but I’d hope that they would (if they exist) be able to shine more light on this trends.

    January 26, 2011
  2. Liam #

    @Matt – Its not important if they take in better candidates. That would imply each school provides an equal education on an equal grading scale, which is simply not correct or feasible. The quality of the school should not be reflected in the average GPA.

    January 26, 2011
  3. admin #

    @Matt- That’s definitely an interesting question, and I’ve been looking for data on the relationship between grade inflation and how selective a school is. It does seem like more elite schools do see higher grades, though whether this is due to a more influential student and parent body better able to lobby for higher grades or due to more diligent students is debatable. In the UC system UCSD is generally regarded to be about as hard as UCLA or Cal in terms of coursework, but does have a significantly lower average GPA, at 3.0 compared to around 3.3. It seems to me (from inside the system) that here it is due to more diligent students at Cal and UCLA rather than higher grade inflation there, but I’d like to look into it further. From what I’ve read, SAT score is a poor predictor of GPA but there is some correlation between the two (Here’s an interesting paper, http://arxiv.org/pdf/1004.2731v1).

    January 27, 2011
  4. “According to Gordon Stanley, the director of Oxford University’s department of education, grade inflation is prevalent in every country in the world with Hong Kong being the one notable exception” (Shepherd, 2008).

    I know a girl from UCLA who failed her Intro to Chemistry class, but received a C+ with the classroom curve. I understand a higher GPA may make a certain university look more prestigious, but grade inflation has contributed to the increased importance of test scores for matriculation into grad school.

    January 30, 2011
  5. Wow, I never expected it to differ by that much. Getting high grades is getting easier and easier. I should go back to school get my masters.

    July 7, 2011

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