Good grades may not be the result of hard work

Posted on 08 November 2006 by Colleen Gallagher

Grade inflation, or the gradual increase in the number of high grades awarded, has become a trend among universities trying to acquire or keep a prestigious reputation in recent years.Ivy League schools, such as Harvard and Princeton, recruit some of the brightest students, and, according to U.S. News and World Report, are among the best schools to attend. Having attended a top ranked school can be a great advantage when vying for a job, but this advantage may seem unfair to students attending lower ranked schools.

According to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, in 1966, 22 percent of Harvard undergraduates earned A’s. In 1996, this figure rose to 46 percent. At Princeton, 31 percent of all grades in 1973 were A’s, and that figure rose to 43 percent by 1997. Grades below the B range accounted for only 12 percent of total grades.

When almost everyone receives A’s, this inflation seems to undermine exceptional efforts by students. According to The Harvard Crimson, in the 2001-2002 school year, 92 percent of upperclassmen were on the Dean’s List.

A USA Today article from February 2002, entitled “Ivy League grade inflation” states several possible causes for these inflated grades. The most influential factor seems to be that “tough grading makes a student less likely to get into graduate school,” which could jeopardize a high ranking. Students who are less prepared for college work can also cause professors to inflate grades. Lenient grading can help prevent less prepared students from being discouraged.

Students also tend to rate professors who give A’s more favorably, which can cause professors to grade more leniently.

Grade inflation, however, can negatively affect both the students receiving the inflated grades and those who are not. According to the USA Today article, “when all students receive high marks, graduate schools and business recruiters simply start ignoring the grades.” Then, graduate school recruiters focus mainly on entrance test scores.

Because each college or university grades differently, students with potential equivalent to those who attend top ranked institutions may get ignored by recruiters because of a lower GPA. has compiled data detailing trends in grade inflation among both private and public universities. From 1967-2001, the grade inflation rate at the private schools analyzed, which included Harvard and Princeton, was around 25-30 percent higher than the rate at the public schools, which included top ranked schools such as Illinois and Wisconsin.

This Web site also lists the average GPA for individual schools by year. In 1999, Harvard’s undergraduate GPA was 3.42, while Princeton’s was 3.34. In that same year, Illinois’ average undergraduate GPA was 3.12, and Wisconsin’s was 3.13.

The top 20 schools in U.S. News’ list of top national universities for 2007, and for most years before that, were all private. Most of the schools that ranked in the top 20, and when researched by, had average GPAs above a 3.0 in 1999. Schools lower in the list tended to have lower GPAs, according to the study. For instance, in 1999, the University of California-Irvine ranked 49th and had an average GPA of 2.73.

Marquette University was not included in these calculations. When asked for any data pertaining to the average GPA of Marquette students, Vicki Trautschold from the registrar’s office responded that the school “does not keep this information, therefore it cannot be given.”

Some students like Angelica Sinajon, a transfer student from Orange Coast Community College who is competing for a spot in Marquette’s Physical Therapy Program, believe that “if anything, Marquette deflates grades in comparison to other schools. Some of my teachers have told me that they hardly ever give A’s in order to make students work harder.”

Professors at Marquette, however, have general rules they follow to ensure that the grading process within the school is as fair as possible. Joshua Schulz, who teaches philosophy at Marquette, said professors “have to balance the average GPA’s of their classes against those of other teachers teaching the same classes.” This helps to ensure that students are not penalized for taking a teacher who is tougher on grading.

Most teachers are expected to have average class grades within a few percentage points of other teachers’ classes. Schulz said professors do not have a required average GPA for their classes, but “If we come out too high or too low, we are given a strong suggestion by our department chair to change our grading style.”

He agrees, however, that grades within the Department of Philosophy at Marquette have been increasing over time. Professors take the average grade of a specific course for a certain year, and this average is then compared to average grade for that course five, 10 and 20 years ago. Given the general trend, he added, “We make a definite effort to stall the trend, though not to reverse it. We try not to let the average grades differ too much from year to year to the best of our ability.”

However, each academic department’s grading process varies. According to Peggy Bloom, Vice Provost for Undergraduate Programs and Teaching, the university has no “systematic data approach for determining average grades.”

Albert Rivero, Professor of English Literature, stated that he has no set of specific grades that he must give. He grades “based on the quality of the work and believes that giving a set number of A’s does not adequately award effort.”

Rivero also feels that the split grading system at Marquette, in which A- and B+ are equal in grade points awarded, is unfair.

“It disadvantages the student who should receive an A-, but instead receives a grade comparable to a B+.”

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