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Why grade inflation (even at Harvard) is a big problem

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The Harvard Crimson, the university’s student newspaper, recently published a story about the continuing problem of grade inflation at the elite institution. Here’s a piece about why it matters, from Diane R. Dean is associate professor for higher education administration and policy at Illinois State University. Arthur Levine is president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and president emeritus of Teachers College, Columbia University. They are co-authors of Generation on a Tightrope: A Portrait of Today’s College Student.

By Arthur Levine and Diane Dean

Harvard’s student newspaper recently reported that its median grade for undergraduates is A- and its most frequently awarded grade is A. The story produced a media hullabaloo, but grade inflation is neither new nor surprising.

College student grades in the United States have been rising steadily since the 1960s. In 1969, 7 percent of undergraduates had grades of A- or higher in contrast to 41 percent now. Similarly, grades of C or less have dropped from 25 percent to 5 percent.

For a long time, the situation seemed absurd, but not particularly important. Grade inflation was common knowledge and graduate schools and employers understood what was happening. Institutions that employed more rigorous standards were able to inform employers, and appropriate translations were generally made.

Yet grade inflation has become a serious problem for current undergraduates, as we learned when we conducted a study of today’s college students, using 45 years of national surveys, interviews, and focus groups of students and deans of students.

Every generation of college students has much in common with its immediate predecessors, but each generation is also different. According to deans of students, current undergraduates are more coddled, protected, and spoiled than previous students. They told us, “This is a generation that has never been allowed to skin their knees.” “They all won awards at everything they ever tried—most improved player, fourth runner-up, best seven-year-old speller born on March 8.” Their parents are the “helicopter parents” whose children were “never permitted to fail” at any undertaking. They grew up with an inflated sense of accomplishment and expect to continue to receive awards or at least praise for everything they do.

Interviews with two dozen employers produced a similar response. They criticized the recent college grads they hired for “expecting to be rewarded for showing up,” “wanting the keys to the kingdom on day one,” “asking for a raise after a month of mediocre work,” “having their parents fight their battles,” and “being unable to take criticism.”

Here’s the problem. Three out of five undergraduates now believe their inflated grades understate their true academic ability. To put this into perspective, 45 percent are coming to college weak in basic skills, having to take at least one remedial course in math or writing. Over the years that number has risen almost as quickly as their grades. On top of this, current undergraduates find the courses they are taking quite challenging. Fewer than one in ten (7 percent) describe them as easy, and more than half (54 percent) say they are difficult or very difficult.

At a minimum, a college education should develop in graduates the knowledge, skills and character to lead successful lives. It should identify a student’s strengths and weaknesses, seeking to augment the former and diminish the latter. Grade inflation is harmful because it cheats students of the opportunity to understand what they do and don’t do well. It denies them the chance to know how they stack up against what the world demands. It deprives them of experiencing failure and learning how to recover. Grade inflation tells students they do everything very well—a continuation of the applause and approbation most have experienced all of their lives. Grade inflation diminishes the ability of colleges to educate. Grade inflation is commonly thought of as a moral or ethical failing; it is in reality an education failing.

Our recommendation is simple. Colleges and universities should make grades meaningful. Ideally, there were would be common definitions across institutions and, when possible, they would be accompanied by rich evaluative commentary. This should be done not for the sake of any third party—grad schools, employers, parents, or media—but because we owe our college students a candid assessment of their achievements. Their education should offer them a reality check so that they are prepared to build on what they truly do well and learn from what they do not.