Friday, August 5, 2011

College grade inflation

I recently came across an interesting chart regarding grade inflation at our nation's universities--it looked, perhaps not surprisingly, strikingly familiar...

What's perhaps most notable is that grade inflation has been significantly more prevalent at private schools as opposed to public schools.

At first blush, the response is "so what"? Who cares if a bunch of Ivy League assholes (not me, of course, I earned my cum laude degree...) are getting higher grades than they used to? The problem is, college GPA is often a primary factor in both corporate hiring and graduate school admissions (many companies refuse to consider applicants whose GPA is below 3.0, regardless of the school they attended), indicating that private school students are, all else equal, more likely to be accepted to graduate school or hired into high-paying jobs.

This isn't necessarily a problem, if we concede that the students at the private schools are actually earning those grades. It's certainly plausible that private schools, with their typically more selective criteria, are in fact getting better students--it's no less plausible that over time, these top students have become better at responding to (and providing) what their professors reward, and that the curricula and grading standards have simply been slow to adjust. In that vein, schools like Harvard and Yale have been quick to point out that their mean SAT scores have increased over time, as their acceptance rates have continually plummeted.

But there is, of course, a possible darker explanation to this picture. It's difficult (if not impossible) for private schools to justify their ever-increasing tuition costs on a "return-on-investment" basis if their students aren't being accepted to graduate schools and hired by banks and consulting firms at a higher rate than their public school counterparts. They therefore have a vested interest in assuring that their students are best positioned for acceptance at the next stage, and a higher GPA is certainly part of that picture. Grade inflation, then, is simply good business for private schools--at least until the graduate schools and corporations change their methods, which they probably won't.

This is not to say that private schools in general are failing to deliver a solid education--though I'd argue that some most certainly are. But there is certainly a benefit to the institution of providing high grades to its students regardless of their performance, and when there is an incentive, there is typically a response.

That's the story that the above chart is really showing, and it's a tough story to swallow. In essence, private school students (well, their parents anyway) are buying their way to higher college GPAs, and therefore buying their way into better post-graduate opportunities. That's certainly not a story Harvard would like to tell about itself, but that doesn't necessarily make it any less true.


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