Chart of the Day: Grade Inflation

Everybody’s a winnah! In today’s universities, almost everybody does “excellent” work — even though students are spending less time studying and preparing  for class. This chart comes from “Where A Is Ordinary: The Evolution of American College and University Grading, 1940–2009” by way of the Carpe Diem blog.

Once upon a time, a “gentleman’s C” actually required a modest mastery of the subject matter. Today, a C means maybe you showed up to class.

Grade inflation is the logical culmination of our egalitarian/therapeutic society in which we hesitate to elevate some individuals over others, and we surely hate making anyone feel bad. The malaise permeates all social strata, so it’s hard to single out higher ed as being any more at fault than anyone else. But higher ed has the most to lose. As the authors of “Where A is Ordinary” point out:

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.

If it’s any consolation, Southern schools grade more harshly than those in other regions. (Hopefully, that applies to Virginia colleges and universities as well.) Also, science and engineering-focused schools grade more stringently than liberal arts colleges. If there was ever any doubt that the humanities are fast losing their relevance and should be regarded more as an experiential consumer item than a path to a rigorous education, this is further proof.


Share this article


(comments below)


(comments below)


  1. FreeDem Avatar

    I find it fascinating that the claim is usually that science and engineering-focused schools grade more stringently than liberal arts colleges. I wonder if it is a side effect of the depth that they typically delve into. Any science-based major is going to be building on previous knowledge, semester by semester, to the point that even minor differences in student ability can create sharp differences in testable ability.

    A liberal arts major is more likely to have a theme of related sources, but not necessarily courses that build on one another. Can you expect true mastery of a subject after a semester? Certainly not. A liberal arts course is going to be testing your ability to understand the material in the semester. A math or science course will be expecting you to understand the material that came before. A B student in the introductory material will continue to struggle in the more advanced material, and could fall further behind.

    1. I think it’s simpler than that. In the hard sciences and mathematics, there are a lot more “right” and “wrong” answers. No room for B.S. Also, there’s no “politically correct” answer to a mathematical equation.

      1. FreeDem Avatar

        But why should the ability to find shades of gray in an answer contribute to grade inflation? In the “right-wrong” world, you either know it, or you don’t, which would contribute to a binomial distribution in grades. In liberal arts, you can argue you somewhat know it, which should produce more C’s. Or that’s my perspective.

        In my personal experience it’s been the opposite, but I’m just drawing on anecdotes.

        All of my liberal arts courses were able to weed out who paid attention and who didn’t. It was sink or swim, or at least get by with a non-failing grade or swim. My lowest grades (note, not my most difficult courses) were in some biology courses where the professors had very specific expectations above and beyond the simple “right” and “wrong” answers. They emphasized the need to back away from “right” and “wrong” answers and instead emphasize the difficulties in being certain in science.

        My general experience with STEM courses is that they make it as difficult as possible to be open to someone from humanities because of the difference in culture, while the humanities have the reasonable expected that STEM people should know how to write and present … and they don’t.

  2. larryg Avatar

    The other interesting thing (at least to me) is that K-12 achievement in this country for STEM really sucks. In math we rank 24th, in science we rank 21.

    What would be interesting would be to have two charts for grade inflation. One for STEM and one for non-STEM.

    As Jim points out – when you’re dealing in the real world designing a bridge or an electronic stability system for a car, it’s not really an exercise in philosophy – at least at the end of the process.

    I’d also like to see a poll about global warming – between folks without college, those who graduate college with a non STEM degree and those who graduate with a STEM degree.

  3. larryg Avatar

    ” My general experience with STEM courses is that they make it as difficult as possible to be open to someone from humanities ”

    IF you were not already on a STEM track in high school, and took courses like Calculus and other advanced math and science, you’d be in trouble anyhow.

    You can’t just glide along for 12 years in school and then suddenly decide you are going to be a STEM student – unlike what you can do in the humanities which is more memorization than real-world problem solving using what you’ve learned.

    It’s not just right or wrong. Anyone who has spent any time at all in the back of a math book looking at the “word” problems knows that it’s not at all a simple “right” answer…you have to be able to reason your way to that answer… by understanding the nature of the problem and how you’d go about finding the answer.

    Again.. you just don’t drop into this discipline as a Freshman in college. Either you prepared yourself for this track prior to college or you’re going to be dealing with a swamp full of alligators.

    Here’s another question. How many college folks change their intended degree from STEM to non-STEM and how many who initially pursue humanities change their goal to STEM?

    1. FreeDem Avatar

      Again, I can only go on anecdote.

      I graduated valedictorian from my high school after attending an advanced Governor’s School focused on math, science, and technology. I took calculus and other advanced courses before attending college.

      At my college, the freshman science courses were designed to weed out the pre-med students who couldn’t cut it. I passed easily with an A, but I had friends who stuck with the major who barely passed. The intro courses do need to weed folks out. But I doubt that the non-STEM courses take the same approach of “Wow, we have too many potential English majors!”

      I took a few more advanced biology courses just for fun. Your description of memorization vs. real world problem solving is the exact opposite, with a few exceptions, of my experience in college. Being handed an entirely new topic and told to research it and present a paper, that’s real world for understanding how to approach a problem, tackle it, and inform others. That’s my experience in the humanities. Being able to reason and find the way to a solution is far more in line with a liberal arts education than STEM, which is far more about memorization and building on the shoulders of giants.

      In the sciences, it was all memorization. I was supposed to regurgitate enough key words and phrases to satisfy the professor. Drop off a certain phrase? Partial credit, 9 out of 10. Would he admit it was obvious that I knew what I was talking about? Yes, but he had certain expectations. That’s life. I got a B+, lowest grade in my career.

  4. Hydra Avatar

    Also, there’s no “politically correct” answer to a mathematical equation.


    Not really. Lots of math and mechanics problems depend on the frame of reference you choose. If you choose a rotating frame of reference, you can eliminate the coriolis effect from some mechanical problems.

    You just have to put the right “spin” on things.

  5. Hydra Avatar

    I remember my professor in physical chemistry started off by saying that in his class, God gets and A, the professor gets a B, and if a student works really Really hard, they might get a C.

    The first effect of this was that all the pre-med students who needed high grade averages, dropped the class. I scored a 24, a 25, and a 26, on my first three exams. My other coursework suffered from the struggle, and the “ridiculous” expectations.

    The final exam consisted of a antional standardized test, which I scored a 97 on. I got a B for the course.

    The main thing I learned (again), from this course, was that all grading is subjective, and it doesn’t mean squat.

    1. FreeDem Avatar

      I knew a philosophy/religion professor who did the same.

  6. larryg Avatar

    I know of one R&D lab with about 3o00 employees where you don’t get a job unless you have a 3.0 in a hard science….

    they needed people who could successfully take a mathematical description of a projectile/missile and make a computer model that would successfully predict when that missile would land… there is nothing subjective or politically correct about that at all… either the model matches real-world results or the model is crap. In general.. people that do not perform well in the hard sciences don’t have the skill nor the temperament to do that work.

  7. larryg Avatar

    I’m a big believer in the essential truth in being able to “solve” math word problems.

    The area where we are seriously lacking in comparisons with Europe and Asia is called critical thinking – the ability to take what you’ve learned from a book and to use it to solve a real world problem.

    if you add 500 lbs to a car, how much bigger will the brake pads need to be?

    if you put an electronic stability control on a car – at what speed and angle should the computer start pulsing the brakes and at what pressure and how long….?

    if you design an exit ramp that is a 360 degree circle – what should the maximum ramp speed be for vehicles?

    there are no “right” or “wrong” answers here .per se.. there are instead real numbers that become the “right” and “wrong” and they don’t come flying out of your brain as a memory of page 238 in the Calculus Text.

Leave a Reply