Everyone seems to understand grade inflation to be real and to be a problem. Websites are devoted to tracking the average grade point averages at colleges and universities and shaming the universities that the sites’ owners consider to be the worst offenders. Last year, the Brown Conversation devoted discussion to the perceived ease of earning an A at Brown. Proponents of the grade inflation hypothesis cite many causes — from the increasingly commercial nature of higher education to moral decline among America’s students to affirmative action — for the observed increase in average grade point averages that they term grade inflation. The observed trend in increased grades is real, but there is reason to believe the trend is a byproduct of positive changes at America’s colleges and universities and should be celebrated as evidence these changes have been successful.
Well-known critics of grade inflation, such as Harvard professor Harvey Mansfield, attribute grade inflation to increased racial and ethnic diversity in America’s institutions of higher education, arguing that grade inflation arose from a desire among college faculty members to avoid being perceived as racist or bigoted for assigning deservedly low grades to unqualified beneficiaries of affirmative action. There is reason to believe average grades have increased as a result of increased diversity in the student bodies of colleges and universities but that the cause differs from Mansfield’s conception.
Prior to the middle of the 20th century, the student bodies of American colleges and universities, especially the “elite” institutions, did not consist of America’s brightest young people. Many groups of potential students, such as women, racial and ethnic minorities, students of limited economic means and international students, were systematically excluded from elite institutions and higher education as a whole through explicit rules, cultural norms or economic constraints. Over the past decades, the country has seen many social movements and policy changes that attempted to transform America’s universities from staid playgrounds for the elite’s children to meritocratic incubators of the next generation. While there remains much to be done to make university admission and education financing truly meritocratic, it is easier to claim the Brown student body in 2013 represents 6,000 of the nation’s and world’s brightest young people than it was to make the same claim 50, 30, or even 20 years ago.
Given that we’re no longer excluding thousands of great students based on arbitrary and irrelevant demographic factors, shouldn’t we expect the average quality of student work to increase? If the average quality of student work increases, why shouldn’t grades correspondingly increase? Grade inflation is not an attempt to compensate for affirmative action. Rather, it is the natural result of successful attempts to make our universities fairer and more meritocratic, a success that should be praised instead of abhorred.
It is also plausible grade inflation has resulted from technological progress. The information technology revolution has drastically changed the process of producing graded academic work. Research no longer requires painstaking hours digging through card catalogs and meticulously flipping through dusty back issues of journals on lonely library shelves. Instead, the entirety of the world’s academic corpus is now readily accessible at all hours of the day and night with a university login account. Technology has improved the writing process, too. Students no longer need to struggle with recalcitrant typewriters to draft a paper. Inexpensive computers and printers have made easier refining and perfecting one’s writing.
The end result of technological changes is that an undergraduate can prepare written work that draws on a much larger body of research and is significantly more polished than was written work prepared before the information technology revolution. When it becomes easier to prepare work traditionally understood to be A-level work, shouldn’t we see more A’s? This is, in fact, the pattern found in the data. The current grade inflation trend began during the mid-1980s, contemporaneous with the arrival of personal computers such as the PC and Macintosh. As information became steadily more accessible, grades increased correspondingly.
That grades in the humanities and social sciences have increased more significantly in the past 25 years than grades in the physical sciences is due to the differing nature of assignments given in these courses. Written work such as research papers greatly benefits from access to computers and the Internet, and those assignments are more common in humanities courses. Courses that rely on in-class assessment without the benefit of access to a computer, such as courses in the physical sciences, will see a less significant increase, and any increase is presumably attributable to improved interactive study aids and the improved student population in those courses.
The observed increase in average GPA is the product of two trends worth celebrating — increasingly meritocratic selection of students and the arrival of new technologies that improve access to information and increase productivity. Grade inflation is not something to fear. It is something we should praise.
Ian Eppler ’13 just wants an easy A. He may be contacted at