Getting smarter or grade inflation? – College grades have improved since 1960

by Grace

With an increasing percentage of A’s being “earned” in college classrooms, are we to conclude that students are getting smarter?  Or are we experiencing grade inflation?  A new study by Stuart Rojstaczer and Christopher Healy that examines grades over 69 years suggests the latter, a finding consistent with results reported by the authors of Academically Adrift.

Findings/Results: Contemporary data indicate that, on average across a wide range of schools, A’s represent 43% of all letter grades, an increase of 28 percentage points since 1960 and 12 percentage points since 1988. D’s and F’s total typically less than 10% of all letter grades. Private colleges and universities give, on average, significantly more A’s and B’s combined than public institutions with equal student selectivity. Southern schools grade more harshly than those in other regions, and science and engineering-focused schools grade more stringently than those emphasizing the liberal arts. At schools with modest selectivity, grading is as generous as it was in the mid-1980s at highly selective schools. These prestigious schools have, in turn, continued to ramp up their grades. It is likely that at many selective and highly selective schools, undergraduate GPAs are now so saturated at the high end that they have little use as a motivator of students and as an evaluation tool for graduate and professional schools and employers.

Conclusions/Recommendations: As a result of instructors gradually lowering their standards, A has become the most common grade on American college campuses. Without regulation, or at least strong grading guidelines, grades at American institutions of higher learning likely will continue to have less and less meaning.

Increase in A’s correlates with two enrollment factors

In considering the possible causes of more A’s for college students, two opposing factors come to mind.  One is the overall increase in the percentage of high school graduates who enroll in college.  Expanding higher education opportunities for more youngsters has probably created a pool of students less academically prepared than those of recent generations, a reason often given for declining SAT scores but inconsistent with the increase in better grades.  Another competing factor is the higher proportion of women attending college.  From elementary grades to college, females earn higher grades than males do, so the increase in A’s could be related to this.

Higher overall percent attending college

More women attending college


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