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Grade Inflation Epidemic Infects Higher Education; Undermines Student Motivation and Academic Standards
August 21, 2003

WASHINGTON, DC—A new study released today by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) and the Institute for Effective Governance (IEG) finds that grade inflation is a national epidemic, undermining high performance and hard work in colleges and universities across the country.

The study, Degraded Currency: The Problem of Grade Inflation, calls on college and universities to end practices that inflate grades and institute measures that reward achievement and high standards.

Reviewing previous studies that are both national and based on single institutions, the report by ACTA senior consultant George Leef finds persistent and significant grade inflation throughout higher education.

For example, one national study finds the number of A’s to have risen from 7 percent to 26 percent over a 17-year-period, while the number of C’s fell by 66 percent. Another national study concluded that from the 1980s to the 1990s, grades had increased at every type of institution by more than a quarter point.

Single institution studies have shown a similar pattern.

— At Harvard, the percentage of students receiving A’s or A-minuses rose from 33.2 percent in 1985 to 48.5 in 2000.

— At Princeton, the percentage of A’s increased from 30.7 percent in 1973 to 42.5 percent in the late 1990s.

— At Dartmouth, the average Grade Point Average (GPA) rose from 2.2. in 1958 to 3.33 in 2001.

— At Duke, the GPA went from 2.79 in 1969 to 3.37 in 2001.

Studies cited also include the universities of Alabama, Arizona, Georgia Tech, Indiana, North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Purdue, and Rutgers, as well as Carleton College. All but one—Hayward—show either modest or dramatic grade inflation.

The report suggests that causes of grade inflation include pressure to keep students happy, the fear that students will write negative evaluations of professors who maintain high academic standards, desire by faculty members to avoid additional work and conflict that honest grading can entail, and hostility by some faculty to the very concept of grading.

“Inflated grades are de-graded currency, not worth the paper they are printed on,” said ACTA president Anne Neal. “At a time when SAT scores have leveled off, the fact that grades continue to rise underscores a deep-seated problem in academe. Too many of our institutions are unwilling to distinguish among degrees of achievement. Future employers, schools and students are left without a realistic picture of ability, students have less motivation to achieve, and we foster a troubling need to rely on subjective criteria and connections. It simply must be stopped.”

The report suggests a number of solutions. Colleges could set institution-wide grade averages that faculty members may not exceed. Or they could report not only individual grades, but the grade average for all students in a course so that it would be possible to see whether a particular student was above or below the median.

Harvard University professor Harvey Mansfield—who stirred a public controversy by challenging grade inflation at Harvard—welcomed the study’s findings. “Grade inflation devalues the currency of the academic realm and calls into question whether today’s grades are anything but worthless tokens of self-esteem,” Mansfield said.

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni is a nonprofit educational organization dedicated to academic freedom, academic quality and accountability. The Institute for Effective Governance is a service organization for college and university trustees. Both are located in Washington, DC.


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