GPAs gone wild

Out-of-control grade inflation on college campuses masks the reality that many students today spend more time drinking than studying

March 25, 2009|By Stuart Rojstaczer

SAN FRANCISCO -About six years ago, I was sitting in the student union of a small liberal arts college when I saw a graph on the cover of the student newspaper that showed the history of grades given at that institution in the past 30 years.

Grades were up. Way up.

I'm a scientist by training, and I love numbers. So when I looked at that graph, I wondered: How many colleges and universities have data like this that I can find?

The answer is that a lot of schools have data like this hidden somewhere. Back then, I found more than 80 colleges and universities with data on grades, mostly by poking around the Web. Then I created a Web site ( so that others could find this data.

I learned that grades started to shoot up nationwide in the 1960s, leveled off in the 1970s, and then started rising again in the 1980s. Private schools had much higher grades than public schools, but virtually everyone was experiencing grade inflation.

What about today?

Grades continue to go up regardless of the quality of education. At a time when many are raising questions about the quality of U.S. higher education, the average GPA at public schools is 3.0, with many flagship state schools having average GPAs higher than 3.2. At a private college, the average is now 3.3. At elite Brown University, two-thirds of all letter grades given are now A's.

These changes in grading have had a profound influence on college life and learning. When students walk into a classroom knowing that they can go through the motions and get a B-plus or better, that's what they tend to do - give minimal effort.

Our college classrooms are filled with students who do not prepare for class. Many study less than 10 hours a week - that's less than half the hours they spent studying 40 years ago. Paradoxically, students are spending more and more money for an education that seems to deliver less and less content.

With so few hours filled with learning, boredom sets in and students have to find something to pass the time. Instead of learning, they drink. A recent survey of more than 30,000 first-year students across the country showed that nearly half were spending more hours drinking than they were studying.

There are solutions. At about the same time that I started to collect data on rising grades, Princeton University began to do something about its grade-inflation problem. Its guidelines have the effect of now limiting A's on average to 35 percent of students in a class.

Those guidelines have worked. Grades are going back down at Princeton, and academic rigor is making a comeback. A similar successful effort has taken place at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. And through a concerted effort on the part of faculty and leadership, grades at Reed College in Oregon have stayed essentially constant for 20 years.

Princeton, Wellesley, and Reed provide evidence that the effort to keep grade inflation in check is not impossible. This effort takes two major steps: First, school officials must admit that there is a problem, and then they must implement policies or guidelines that truly restore excellence.

Making a switch will take hard work, but the effort is worthwhile. The alternative is a student body that barely studies and drinks out of boredom. That's not acceptable.

I'm looking forward to the day when we can return to being proud of the education that our nation's colleges and universities provide.

Stuart Rojstaczer is a former professor of geophysics at Duke University. This article originally appeared in The Christian Science Monitor.

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