Oft-mentioned sentiments from experts in higher education and high school guidance counselors say that as long as students work hard and do their best, it won’t matter whether they choose a public university or a private one. After all, the amount of work students put in at either school should be proportional to the grade they receive. But a study released last month indicates otherwise.
According to the study published in the Teachers College Record, a comparison of 80 four-year colleges and universities showed that over the past 50 years, the rate of grade inflation has gone up, with private universities surpassing public universities in the trend. GW was one of the universities studied. Looking at contemporary grading data from 160 schools, private colleges had a grade point average of 3.3 while public schools had a GPA of 3.0.
This is not an indication that students at private universities are smarter than those at public ones. According to the study, students were equally qualified based on SAT scores and other factors.
A large factor in GPAs is the rate of grade inflation, and private universities are the bigger offenders, the study found. The findings are especially interesting, seeing as the common perception is that private universities have a more rigorous curriculum than public ones. One would expect GPAs to be lower at these schools. And while this may not seem like the worst phenomenon to GW students, the study highlights the possible negative effects of grade inflation and the need for schools across the country to level out the playing field.
For example, grade inflation at any school gives students a false sense of security. When we get to graduate school, law school or our first jobs and realize we aren’t the A students we were back in college, part of the blame falls on inflated GPAs.
Institutions of higher education have a responsibility to their students to curb grade inflation, but any effort to simply reexamine grading policies will require all schools to make the same effort. While some schools, such as Princeton University, have attempted to lead the charge, others still continue to round up. In early April, Loyola Law School of Los Angeles reportedly announced a plan to increase grades by a third. According to a dean’s memo published by the website Above the Law, “what previously was a B- would be a B, what previously was a B would be a B+, and so forth.” This collective action problem presents a need for higher education to implement ways that would level out grades for everyone.
Seeing as grade inflation has been on the rise over the past 50 years, any effort to reduce it would need to be both national and even coerced. If colleges and universities are penalized for grade inflation with such consequences as losing accreditation or falling in national rankings, there would be an incentive to stop inflating grades. A national range of average GPAs, calculated based on grading data from schools across the country, could act as the gauge for possible indicators of grade inflation. If a university’s average GPA falls too drastically outside of that range, that school’s grading practices should be investigated. If results of an investigation show that grades have been inflated, the school should face the aforementioned consequences and end the detrimental practice. Otherwise, the rising trend will continue for years to come. Hopefully at that point it won’t be too late to gauge the difference between a “real” A and an inflated one.
Additionally, if administrators used averages to track the way professors have graded in both current and previous jobs, they could then focus on hiring only the professors who do not inflate grades. This speaks to the sources of grade inflation, and would reduce the number of professors who are too willing to hand out good grades to those who don’t deserve them.
We as students at a private university may have an apparent advantage now, but it may hurt us later. Unfortunately, unless there is an incentive to stop or a penalty for grade inflation, a harmful trend will continue to rise. Higher education as a whole must act accordingly. In the mean time, we will need to be cognizant of the fact that in the post-graduation race, our unfair advantage means that grads from public universities may have a slightly better grasp of what work actually deserves an A.
The writer, a sophomore majoring in journalism, is The Hatchet’s contributing opinions editor.