grade inflation experiment

A recent article in the Journal of Economic Perspectives reports a recent attempt to curb grade inflation. High GPA departments at Wellesley College were required to cap high grades. The abstract:

Average grades in colleges and universities have risen markedly since the 1960s. Critics express concern that grade inflation erodes incentives for students to learn; gives students, employers, and graduate schools poor information on absolute and relative abilities; and reflects the quid pro quo of grades for better student evaluations of professors. This paper evaluates an anti-grade-inflation policy that capped most course averages at a B+. The cap was biding for high-grading departments (in the humanities and social sciences) and was not binding for low-grading departments (in economics and sciences), facilitating a difference-in-differences analysis. Professors complied with the policy by reducing compression at the top of the grade distribution. It had little effect on receipt of top honors, but affected receipt of magna cum laude. In departments affected by the cap, the policy expanded racial gaps in grades, reduced enrollments and majors, and lowered student ratings of professors.

My sense is that this shows that grade inflation, whatever its historical origins, acts as a competitive advantage for programs that few other market advantages. If you don’t have a strong external job market or external funding, then you can boost enrollments via grade inflation. It also absolves programs by masking racial under performance. The lesson for academic management is this: If you have inequality in funding, departments will compensate by weak grading. If you have inequality by race, departments will compensate by weak grading. Thus, academic leaders who care about either of these issues should implement policies where departments don’t choose standards and are accountable for results.

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Written by fabiorojas

August 5, 2014 at 12:01 am

9 Responses

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  1. The findings accord well with my experience. I work at an institution similar to Wellesley, and it appears that our grade inflation really took off when course evaluations began to be required. (Believe it or not, this SLAC didn’t use course evals until fairly recently.)

    But some of our sociology majors feel cheated by easy grading, probably due to our socialization. We had a visiting lecturer who gave a majority A+ or A (the quality of students must have been much better than his home institution). The juniors and seniors hated him for it. The freshmen and sophomores thought he was the bees knees.

    My conclusion? Don’t evaluate teaching with student evaluations alone, and watch grade inflation ebb.

    Liked by 1 person


    August 5, 2014 at 12:56 am

  2. If you set standards that are too high, many students will receive poor grades on the basis of the standards. If you don’t set standards, then grades will be perceived on the basis of whether you like the student or not. The experience of schooling, especially in college, is the learning of the standards of different teachers; although all teachers have similar standards, there are differences. Also, in courses where grades are directly related to test scores, the issue becomes what to study for to anticipate the test items which is highly uncertain and leads to lucky or unlucky grades.

    Is there any REAL purpose to grading, I doubt it. If you are setting up a test to differentiate candidates for fireman, then a passing score should include all of those who meet certain minimal standards of ability – physically and mentally. If you are testing candidates for the Navy Seals, again minimal standards must be met but there is the further issue of whether the candidates will be successful in real crises. How can you test for that? You cannot. Testing is merely for minimal qualifications. What becomes the basis for a grade: whether the professor/instructor likes you.

    Professors have three basic roles: demonstrate knowledge acquisition by giving explanations of phenomena, expose students to significant sources of knowledge, advise students on how to improve their situation. Grading and testing is irrelevant in this case. Too much is made out of grading and testing, it is a ritual.

    The making of a professor, or doctor or engineer or lawyer, is a great deal of hand-holding and leading the person towards significant experiences, persons and very particular books and authors. For the majority of students, learning is a guessing game of reading the right books and papers the right way.


    Fredrick Welfare

    August 5, 2014 at 2:48 am

  3. Reblogged this on Pileus and commented:
    Via Eric Crampton:


    Jason Sorens

    August 6, 2014 at 12:53 pm

  4. This is very interesting. It would be interesting if another institution following similar policies could randomly assign treatment to high-grade departments.

    I also wonder about the degree to which use of contingent faculty influences grade inflation. When your livelihood relies on yearly enrollments in classes and student evaluations are often used to assess teaching, then departments with disproportionately high levels of contingent faculty would be disproportionately affected by treatment.



    August 6, 2014 at 1:52 pm

  5. @mike3550: Such a policy might be hard to randomly assign since some STEM fields are notoriously tough graders. For example, when I was an undergrad at Berkeley, basic science courses already had the curve set at C+ (2.3). Also, some departments have low overall GPAs, so there would be no treatment.

    I do agree that contingent faculty may be a big issue. I set my courses for around a 3.0 average (B), which makes student scream. But I could easily see if I were part time, I’d let that drift up quite a bit.



    August 6, 2014 at 3:56 pm

  6. I don’t mean to hijack the thread but I have a closely related question as a graduate student and adjunct going on the market this fall. I try to craft my courses so I end up with a B- average for the class. I worry that this may negatively impact my job prospects assuming students are dinging me for it in the teaching evaluations that I’m sending to search committees. Any thoughts or suggestions?


    Josh Mccabe

    August 6, 2014 at 5:06 pm

  7. @fabio I agree on the STEM fields. I meant randomize treatment the fields with high inflation. I am somewhat skeptical about the validity of the instrument as a measure of some of their outcomes, especially those looking at subgroups, for exactly the reasons that you mention about STEM fields. The control fields vary in many more ways than treatment into this policy (and in fact, treatment into this policy is explicitly based on having high grades). A cleaner experiment would be to leave the STEM fields alone and to randomly assign social science and humanities fields to treatment.

    @josh I am sure that others have more insightful comments to provide, but I think that your teaching statement and philosophy are far more important than your evaluations. You might even put something in your statement about pushing students by maintaining high standards, which often means lower grade distributions.

    Liked by 1 person


    August 6, 2014 at 6:01 pm

  8. @josh: Mike is correct, long as your evaluations are comparable to other instructors and students enjoy the course, you’ll get a fair hearing.

    @mike3550: That’s actually a better idea. It would work great in a big public school with lots of programs in the humanities.

    Liked by 1 person


    August 6, 2014 at 6:09 pm

  9. Really concerned about the racial and racist implications…


    Hector Cordero-Guzman

    August 7, 2014 at 1:29 pm

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