06/09/2014 09:11 am ET | Updated Aug 06, 2014

Inflation in the Academy

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Another academic year is coming to a close and college transcripts are looking better than ever. For example, in recent years, the grade given most frequently at Harvard was not a C, or a B, or even an A minus. The new normal is an A. And it's not just Harvard. Grades have been inflating for years at colleges nationwide. I can recall a mentor and colleague at my first faculty position twenty years ago at Columbia University recommending the use of the "elastic C-" as antidote to my worries over the assignment of one of my set of final grades.

What's behind this phenomenon? One theory is that students are simply learning more, but then the conversation would be about "grade improvement" and not "grade inflation." One more likely explanation involves alignment of incentives. Students, faculty, and administrators all have their own reasons to keep pushing up grades.

It's clear why students would want higher grades, but why should professors go along? In short, it's less hassle. Improved access to faculty and administrators - either electronically or face-to-face - have made it easier for students (and even student's parents) to argue about their grades. From a professor's perspective, these arguments eat into precious time for research, the activity that continues to be most highly valued in the academy. Lower grades may also provoke disgruntled students to retaliate by giving poor ratings to faculty, either in official teaching evaluation documents or unofficial and public web-based venues, which in turn can be read by administrators. In particular, junior faculty, rightly concerned with these numbers in the face of tenure decisions can feel the pressure to nudge grades upwards.

Cost-benefit concerns also exist on a departmental level: lower average grades may translate into lower course enrollments. Course enrollments are a kind of currency when it comes to attracting institutional resources, such as faculty and support positions. So in a university structure where the department is still the basic organizational unit, anything that reduces enrollments is a significant worry.

At a still higher level, consider how universities compete with one another for prestige. There the currency involves post-graduation placements and honors. We see the reporting of average entry-level salaries of graduates, the fraction of applicants who receive medical school admissions, the listing of Rhodes and Fulbright scholarships, etc. All of these are important for universities as they strive to enhance their brand. As long as evaluators at the next level take GPA as a proxy for potential job performance and absolute level of achievement, there is a real disincentive for any individual institution to take unilateral measures to deflate grades.

There are reasons for colleges and universities to address this trend. Grade inflation has societal costs. Do we want doctors, lawyers, financiers, etc., who aren't well qualified for their work? Do we want a generation of workers who don't correlate achievement with effort? Moreover, if a student believes that high grades are the norm and all that is needed to advance to the next level is that high grade, students may work less. Indeed, one study shows that studying time has declined from an average of 24 hours/week to 14 hours/week since 1961. Over that same time, average grades have risen steadily. For some, the ability to achieve high grades with less effort means more opportunities for leisure. Is the current real crisis of alcoholism on college campuses related to this? It is something that we have debated seriously here at Dartmouth.

College and universities also have market-based reasons to take into account. If GPA loses value as a metric, the postgraduate marketplace will need to evolve a new means of valuing applicants. This could take the form of a company-specific entrance exam, like the famous Google interview. Someday all companies, or perhaps just major companies, will do this, undoubtedly spawning new institutions to prepare aspirants for these exams. That development, in turn, will either add pressures to the (remaining) universities to change their curricula to be more industry (or even company) relevant, or universities may go out of business to be replaced by company-specific centers of education. Of course, there is no reason for these to be physical institutions as the relevant material could all be delivered online and presumably for a much lower cost to the student. The rise of MOOCs and a growing host of online options suggest that this kind of shift in the higher education landscape may be closer than we know.

Market forces could push grades to become more meaningful, but the academy must also try to be proactive. One line of attack has been the construction of more informative transcripts. At one extreme, are the " narrative evaluations" that Hampshire College gives. Here at Dartmouth transcripts include median grades, along with the number of courses in which the student exceeded, equaled or came in lower than those medians. This may prove helpful, but not all of the next set of gatekeepers will have the time or the technology to re-distill these new summaries. Explicit top-down solutions, such as setting new and lower course or departmental or institutional GPAs, or restricting the number of A's as Princeton has been trying to do, seem doomed to failure and to be honest, can be unfair as they focus on relative as opposed to absolute merit. Still, a relaxation of some of the pressures mentioned above might be useful. Teaching evaluations could be professionalized so that student ratings had less influence on tenure and promotion while simultaneously improving teaching through more constructive feedback. Administrators could guarantee department resources simply based on intrinsic policies tied to the mission of the institution. A thoughtful return to the notion of a grade that is more earned than given, will ultimately serve all of us for the better.