Op-Ed: Grade inflation’s cold reality

(U-WIRE) PHILADELPHIA – While I was filling out course evaluations last semester, I overheard a conversation between two students sitting next to me.

“He only gave me a B on my last paper,” one student said. “I’m going to give him a really bad evaluation.”
“I’m going to do the same,” the other one replied. “I only got a B+/B.”

Incredulous at the dialogue I just heard, I began wondering when a B became a bad grade. After all, when my dad was in college, he would go to the local watering hole to celebrate if he got a B. But now, two students were going to take it out on the professor for their high expectations.

Unknowingly I had answered my own question. Thirty years ago, when grade inflation was in its infancy, a B might have been respected. But in today’s academia, where the mean GPA of College of Arts and Sciences graduates is slightly greater than a B+ (3.38), a B would, in fact, be below average.

During the last presidential election, it came to light that President Bush received Cs during his time at Yale. While Dubya certainly had a less-than-sparkling academic record, people failed to realize that those gentleman Cs he got at Yale decades ago would likely have been Bs today.

A look at the numbers should convince any doubters that grade inflation is rampant. The Boston Globe found that last year an astounding 91 percent of Harvard students graduated with honors, up from 32 percent in 1946. Yale graduated 51 percent with honors, while Princeton awarded honors to a mere 44 percent of graduates.

Some might respond to these allegations by saying how smart Ivy League students are and how each incoming class is more talented than the previous one. However, I would be willing to bet that the average GPA and the percentage of students graduating with honors have increased faster than average incoming SAT scores.

Grade inflation has happened largely because of increased pressure on the professors. Surely, professors didn’t just wake up one day and decide to give higher grades. Today’s Penn students and their parents expect more than Bs and Cs for their $37,120 annual investment. They want As and the powers that be have complied.

From talking to others, I know I am in the minority on this issue, since most students hope that grade inflation continues. But these very same Penn students who support grade inflation surely would not support inflating the SAT to give out more 1500s than 800s. Doing so would have only devalued their good performances.

Knowing that I haven’t deserved some of the grades I’ve received during my three years at Penn, I would be perfectly content if one day, grade inflation reversed itself and some of my As were turned to (gasp) Bs and some Bs turned to (even worse) Cs.

Yet, I know that day will never come. Even though the power to curb grade inflation is available, Penn will never agree to change as long as “everybody’s doing it.” Limiting inflation will hurt not only Penn’s undergraduate admission rates, but also the prospects of its graduates in graduate school admissions and in the job market, thereby ruining the all-important No. 5 U.S. News & World Report ranking. And realizing how infeasible it is for Penn and its peer institutions to reach a consensus, grade inflation, to the cheers of students, is here to stay.

In light of this lasting reality, the only counter is transcript reform. In addition to listing the grade in a class on the transcript, a number of schools, including Dartmouth, have begun putting the average grade given in the class, as well. This way, a B+ in a class will not seem too impressive to Goldman Sachs or Yale Law if the average grade given in that class was an A-.

This way, the integrity of grades can at least be partially restored by putting the numbers into context.

Now is a critical time in which Penn has to decide whether to stick with the pack or to be bold and to tackle grade inflation.

Only when the reader of a transcript can put it into context can grades do their job: to distinguish performance among students.

But even then, a B will still be a bad grade

-David Young
Daily Pennsylvanian
(U. Pennsylvania)

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