Two unrelated events have called my attention to grade inflation recently. One was a post on Grinnell Plans from a current student who had seen a chart demonstrating the upward drift of Grinnell's grades over the last decade. Essentially, the overall mean GPA has risen from roughly a B grade to roughly a B+ grade--a large change for such a short time, and as I understand it, a fairly typical change over the same stretch in many colleges and universities. The second was a detailed post by Steven Willett on NASSR-L, an email list populated by a couple of thousand people interested in Romanticism, mostly graduate students and professors in the field. Willett is a contrarian and a traditionalist who frequently attacks the state of his profession on the list; in this post, he resisted arguments minimizing the existence and consequences of grade inflation by citing a range of studies on the issue. One of those studies caught my attention because it resisted the moralizing I find tiresome on both sides of inflation debates and offered some insight into the mechanisms of grade inflation. This is Willett's quotation of the summary of that study, by Donald G. Freeman, published in 1999 in the Journal of Economic Education:
"My hypothesis is that, given equal money prices per credit hour
across disciplines, departments manage their enrollments by 'pricing'
their courses with grading standards commensurate with the market
benefits of their courses, as measured by expected incomes.
"I analyzed grade divergence using a cross-section of 59 fields of
study from a recently published survey of college graduates by the
National Center for Education Statistics, A Descriptive Summary of
1992–93 Bachelor’s Degree Recipients: 1 year later (NCES 1996). The
survey tracks 1992–93 college graduates to determine outcomes from
postsecondary education, including returns to investment in
education. Using this sample, I found evidence consistent with the
economic explanation of grade divergence: Graduates from high-grading
fields of study have lower earnings than graduates from low-grading
fields of study. This is true even when controlling for factors such
as student ability and experience" (344-45).
Fascinating! Other bits from Willett's post (drawing on other sources) flesh out some of the details underlying this hypothesis: music and education departments tend to give particularly high grades, for instance, and the latest wave of grade inflation has affected the humanities more than the hard sciences, but English and biology in particular more than mathematics. It seems to me that the place of education among particularly high-grading disciplines deserves a good deal of consideration--and has perhaps received such consideration that I simply haven't read. I'll extend that disclaimer to what follows; my speculations may be supported or contradicted by research I don't know. This isn't one of the books I'm writing.
So here's a starting point. Grade inflation is real, across the board in higher education. Giving higher grades produces higher evaluations for teachers, when other factors are controlled (other studies show). Grade inflation varies by discipline. Grade inflation comes in spurts, one of which occurred roughly around 1970 and one in the last ten years.
I find Freeman's hypothesis--that departments whose majors generally earn little money compensate by awarding high grades--fascinating and largely supported by my intuitions. However, I am prompted to look for further explanations for three reasons. First, a bad reason: Freeman's hypothesis does not match how I've seen professors talk about their grading. I call this a bad reason because of the obvious potential for self-deception or deceptive self-marketing here. The second is that there are some exceptions to the rule that I know off the top of my head: when I was at Penn, the ultra-prestigious Wharton School (business) had a reputation for giving high undergraduate grades, and indeed, a web search confirms that its introductory course has a mandated median grade of B+ in each section, which is especially high for an introductory course, where grades are generally lower than in advanced courses. Similar cases abound in related areas, such as the most prestigious law schools, where students with the highes expected earnings get very high grades. The third reason is that the logic of expected earnings does not apply to institutions; the most prestitgious colleges and universities, whose graduates have the highest expected salaries, have experienced grade inflation along with everyone else. For all these reasons, I suspect Freeman is largely correct but that other factors are also in play.
(Side note: I feel no professional self-interest in this issue. My grades are a little lower than average for Grinnell, as I suspect my department's are, and student comments about my grading reflect that. I am neither an apologist for today's grading levels nor an indulger of nostalgia for yesterday's lower ones. I do want to understand how and why my profession employs grades.)
I offer three hypotheses about those other factors:
1. The growing emphasis on revision allows students in some courses to receive higher grades given the same talent, application, and academic standards. I claim no original insight here, but I mention this factor because so many discussions of grade inflation assume that higher grades must imply better student work or lower academic standards. Allowing students to earn higher grades through revision, however, allows teachers to award higher grades while still feeling that students have received honest feedback on their work. Since many pedagogical studies support the learning outcomes of revision-based writing, this can produce a kind of guiltless grade inflation. I'll come back to this point.
2. Elite colleges and universities can use grade inflation to shift employers and graduate schools from statistical evaluations of transcripts to a self-serving prestige market. If every college and university enforced a strict 2.0 median grade, evaluators would compare transcripts by using implicit prestige adjustments--perhaps a 2.5 GPA from a highly selective institution would be roughly equivalent to a 3.1 at a less selective institution. I've seen the application of this kind of unofficial adjustment many times. If practically everyone graduates from Harvard with honors, however (as is the case), then Harvard has created a situation where most of its students cannot be outperformed in transcript reviews. Shifting all grades close to 4.0 forces evaluators to discount grades themselves, thus increasing the importance of the instutional reputation. Harvard has a great deal to gain from grade inflation, and less selective institutions can only play along--if UMass intentionally lowers grades as Harvard inflates them, UMass only hurts its graduates even more relative to Harvard's. Colleges and universities that have the highest stake in maintaining the importance of institutional prestige also have a strong incentive to keep overall grades high. And the least selective institutions are facing pressure to keep marginal students enrolled (to maintain government support based on enrollment levels).
3. The recent inflation of grades coincides with a significant weakening of tenure. Most college courses are now taught by people who are not tenured or tenure-track. Teachers who are untenured but on the tenure track (including me, for whatever that's worth) may feel some pressure to use high grades to raise the level of student evaluations, but that pressure is limited by the relatively large sample of evaluations and many other factors that go into tenure reviews. I would find a reputation for low standards much more dangerous to my tenure prospects than slightly lower average teaching evaluations. I know circumstances vary, but I think the key here is graduate and adjunct teachers whose piecework employment depends heavily on the student evaluations of any given semester. Such teachers often see their professional lives in the hands of administrators unconstrained by full review processes, administrators who need to care a great deal about student and parent satisfaction and not as much about teachers' other contributions to their institutions and professions. If grade levels are a small but significant factor in student evaluations of teaching, piecework teachers are extremely vulnerable to giving higher grades out or real or perceived self-preservation.
Taking all these factors into consideration, I offer my own hypothesis about the grade inflation of the last decade. We are seeing the confluence of multiple, independent incentives that all point in the direction of higher grades: a dramatic increase in reliance on teachers with tenuous employment, defensible mechanisms of raising grades without changing underlying standards, and institutional incentives for every kind of institution to keep overall grades high.