(Author’s note: In response to my 10/29/19 Forbes piece, “Death to Merit —College Admissions Process Descends Into the Abyss,” a number of readers asked me to expand on a subject I mentioned in the course of that piece—grade inflation. What follows distills my research over the years on this subject.)
In an honorable attempt to arrest grade inflation, a number of colleges and universities have adopted assorted versions of “contextualized” transcripts. The experience of three schools discussed below helps to shed light on the promise—and perils—of future likeminded efforts.
In 1994, Dartmouth approved a measure through which “transcripts and student grade reports should indicate, along with the grade earned, the median grade given in the class as well as the class enrollment.” The faculty simultaneously allowed departments to recommend “that certain courses (e.g., honors classes, independent study) be exempted from this provision.” The provision also exempted classes in which the enrollment was below ten students. Beginning with the class of 1998, the bottom of each Dartmouth student transcript carried “a summary statement of the following type: Exceeded the median grade in 13 courses; equaled the median grade in 7 courses; below the median grade in 13 courses; 33 courses taken eligible for this comparison.” Additionally, the new policy requires that “median grades and course enrollments of non-exempt courses should be made publicly available.”
Did Dartmouth’s new policy accomplish its intended goal, namely, arresting grade inflation? It did not. The title of Charles Gardner’s 2002 report in The Dartmouth tells the story: “Unique median-grade policy does not stop inflation.” Four years after its first-of-its-kind innovation, instead of thwarting grade inflation, “students are receiving more A’s than ever before, while some are concerned that the system unfairly penalizes students and promotes competition.” At the time the new policy was launched, the overall GPA stood at 3.25. “Last year, that figure hit 3.33, the highest level ever.”
The report quotes a student who has been participating in the debate over grade inflation in the Dartmouth Student Assembly. “Median grades don’t reduce grade inflation, they expose grade inflation,” he argues, adding that he finds the new policy “breeds an unhealthy competitiveness” unbefitting of Dartmouth. According to the report, a majority of Dartmouth students favored jettisoning the policy. A poll conducted by the Student Assembly poll a year earlier found “nearly 60 percent of students voted in favor of removing median grades from transcripts.” The few dissenters, according to Mike Perry the Students Assembly’s Chair of Academic Affairs, “were generally science majors, whereas those in the humanities tended to oppose it.”
2. Columbia University
No other Ivy League institution has acted as decisively as Dartmouth to require the publication of median grades on student transcripts. Columbia, however, has implemented a similar policy with the view to arresting grade inflation. There, student transcripts reveal the percentage of the class that earned the same grade that the individual student received. Columbia transcripts do not, however, publish median grades. Moreover, Columbia has raised the minimum grade point average needed to quality for the Dean’s List—from 3.30 to 3.60. As detailed in Ian Blecher’s New York Observer report, the effect of this measure is to reduce the number of students who make the Dean’s List from approximately half of the class to approximately one third.
The Observer’s account of the Columbia decision finds that “the change has irked students at the university.” It quotes undergraduate Peter Mondelli, who reports, “A lot of upperclassmen are sort of angry.” Another student complained to the Observer that the new policy might cause prospective employers to “look askance at students who fell off the Dean’s List, even if they kept up the same level of grades.”
At the same time, a good number of students “acknowledged that, truth be told, it has usually been pretty easy for students to make Columbia’s Dean’s List.” Said one student, “I hardly know anybody who hasn’t made the Dean’s List in the past couple of times.” The student added, “I don’t know that many people with a G.P.A. below 3.0, except jocks.”
However, it remains a question whether Columbia’s effort has had any effect at accomplishing its objective of arresting grade inflation. A 2011 piece in The Huffington Post, “Columbia Students Rack Up Straight A’s,” reports on the content of a document “leaked to the Columbia Daily Spectator,” according to which “at least eight percent” of Columbia’s undergraduate students scored a grade point average “of 4.0 or above last semester.” The document was obtained when a Columbia “dean accidentally sent students a spreadsheet noting 482 students who earned an A or above.”
3. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
The latest school to adopt a policy to arrest grade inflation is the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. According to a recent report, the process began in 2008, when a committee of professors at the school “was astounded to discover that the average grade of a Carolina student was 3.213—well over a B average.” This led to a survey of how other universities were tackling grade inflation. As a result, the university opted on what is labeled, “contextual grading.” Under contextual grading, student transcripts now will contain “not just what the individual student earned in a course, but also what the class average was, thereby providing the ‘context’ for the grade.” This policy tells prospective employers more than conventional transcripts alone provide. “Getting an A in a class where almost everyone gets an A is not so much of an accomplishment as getting an A when most of the other students earned B’s and C’s.”
The move is not expected to eliminate but, rather, to reduce grade inflation through removing to some extent the current incentives driving students to take easier courses. In adopting contextual grading, UNC decided against following Princeton’s (now-abandoned) policy of requiring A grades to constitute no more than 35 percent of the grades awarded in an undergraduate class, because such a regime assumes a priori that “grading should be the same across all disciplines.”
UNC-Chapel Hill’s new contextual grading policy was met with dissatisfaction by students there. “Many thought it would hinder their ability to get into graduate school or make it more difficult to find a job, since it would reveal the relative value of their UNC grades, while transcripts from most other schools do not.”
However, at this writing, UNC’s anti-grade-inflation policy has yet to go into effect. Why? As I wrote here, according to the school, “technological challenges” prevented it. Yet, as we have seen, Dartmouth and Columbia already have implemented comparable regimes. Might not UNC’s IT staff have given their peers a phone call in an effort to discover how they mastered these “technological challenges,” which UNC’s staff somehow found unconquerable? And, if they did not, why not?
Whatever the answer is to these questions, one thing seems clear: Addressing the crisis of grade inflation is less a challenge to the intellect (as the above reforms demonstrate) and much, much more a challenge to the moral will of faculty and administrators. For the sake of our students, let us hope they meet this challenge.
(This is the fourth of a four-part series on grade inflation and is based on a paper by the author available here.)