Harvard professor Harvey Mansfield stirred up controversy recently by criticizing the rampant grade inflation at his institution. As reported by the Harvard Crimson, at a faculty meeting earlier this month, Mansfield asked the Dean of Undergraduate Education about the college's grade distribution, stating, "A little bird has told me that the most frequently given grade at Harvard College right now is an A-." The Dean corrected him: "The median grade in Harvard College is indeed an A-. The most frequently awarded grade in Harvard College is actually a straight A."
Grade inflation isn't just a problem at Harvard. A recent study of 200 colleges and universities found that more than 40 percent of all grades awarded were in the A range. Some have argued that these inflated grades are necessary to help students get ahead in a competitive job market. While that might be true for an individual professor or university, at the national level grade inflation is a negative-sum game that imposes serious costs on society. Therefore, universities need to take steps to bring it under control.
Under regular inflation, prices can rise without limit. However, because grades are capped at A or A+, grade inflation results in a greater concentration of students at the top of the distribution. This compression of grades diminishes their value as an indicator of student abilities. Without grade inflation, a truly outstanding student might be awarded an A, while a very good student might receive a B+. With grade inflation, both students receive As, making it hard for employers and graduate schools to differentiate them. There is also evidence that lenient grading reduces student effort.
Despite the costs of grade inflation, professors face strong pressure to award inflated grades. Untenured professors often worry that giving low grades will harm their student evaluation scores. Even professors who have tenure might be concerned that handing out low grades puts their students at a disadvantage relative to their peers. Mansfield himself says that he gives students two grades: the grade he feels they truly deserve, and an official, inflated grade for their transcripts. And there's no doubt that some professors hand out inflated grades in order to save time on grading (or arguing with students about grades). That time can be devoted towards research, advising graduate students or just napping on the front porch.
Thus, individual professors - even those like Mansfield who are adamantly opposed to grade inflation - can do little to combat the problem. The solution has to come at the level of the university. While universities also face pressure to give their graduates a leg up in the job market, large and prestigious institutions like Harvard can exercise leadership, making their stance against grade inflation well known to employers and graduate admissions committees.
Recently, some universities have experimented with publishing information about the grade distribution for each course either online or on student transcripts. The idea behind this strategy is that if employers are aware that grades in a particular course were high, they might be less impressed with the students who earned those grades. Thus, students might seek out tougher courses, motivating professors to offer such courses in response. But a recent study of Cornell's experiment with this approach suggests that it has had the opposite impact, helping students to identify and enroll in courses with lenient grading.
A more promising approach was adopted by Princeton in 2004. The administration issued a guideline that, on average, no more than 35 percent of grades awarded in undergraduate courses should be in the A range. The guideline is not a rigid quota, and it provides professors with the flexibility to award more than 35 percent As if a particular class deserves it. It's also not clear how it is enforced. But it seems to have been successful inlowering grades. Unfortunately, however, Princeton appears to be reconsidering its policy.
Economist Tim Harford has proposed an alternative solution: make grade inflation more like price inflation by uncapping the highest grade. In other words, grade inflation would be less of a problem if the entire grading scale could shift upwards over time, thereby decompressing the grades at the top. Under such a system, today's B becomes tomorrow's A+, tomorrow A+ becomes the day after tomorrow's A+++, and so on. Employers and graduate schools could simply deflate grades the same way that economists deflate prices in order to compare them over time.
Regardless, colleges and universities need to take serious steps towards reining in grade inflation. In practice, this is likely to require imposing some constraints on the grades that professors can give. This may not be popular with students and professors, but it's necessary to prevent higher education from turning into Lake Wobegon - "where … all the children are above average."
Sita Nataraj Slavov is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.