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The GPA Arms Race

Furman computer science professor Chris Healy and former Duke professor Stuart Rojstaczer have been working together for nearly a decade to study grade inflation in America. When their newest report came out this spring, it generated quite a buzz in the national media. The new data, which showed that A’s are the most commonly awarded grades on college campuses, led to articles in such media outlets as The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and Inside Higher Ed. We asked Dr. Healy to talk about his latest research.

How did you become involved in this research about grade inflation and what is your role in the research process?

About seven years ago I discovered Stuart Rojstaczer’s website on college grading. I contacted him personally when I realized that I had additional data that could help paint a broader picture. My role in this research project has mostly been in collecting and analyzing the grade data from hundreds of colleges.

What are the reasons for students getting so many A’s?  Are students simply smarter these days?

No. Over the last 50 years, the average ACT and SAT scores of college-bound students has been relatively constant. But college grades have increased substantially. There are several reasons that contribute to grade inflation. For example, there is a correlation between the grades awarded to students and the teaching evaluations of faculty by the students. Tenure and promotion decisions take into account the rapport the professor has with students. As a result, to some degree the system effectively rewards faculty for awarding higher grades. Another reason has to do with the competitive admissions to graduate and professional schools. Professors naturally want their students to compete well. And since undergraduate GPA is one factor used in graduate admissions, this provides another incentive to inflate grades. As a result, we see a GPA arms race. For example, the average undergraduate GPA of students accepted to medical school has risen from 3.45 in 1992 to 3.70 today.

What impact does grade inflation have on the educational process?  Is it something we should be concerned about?

As faculty, we have the responsibility to accurately assess student achievement. Individual faculty grade fairly, and in most cases rigorously as well. However, the grading standards among individual faculty can be so disparate that a student’s GPA might not correlate well with achievement. As a result, we run the risk of employers and graduate schools losing faith in academia’s ability to evaluate students, and as a result they may pay more attention to standardized tests. The purpose of a grade is to give an honest appraisal of a student’s achievement. I fear that grade inflation is making this increasingly difficult. One thing we can consider is changing the way that grades are awarded to students. Currently, there seems to be a conflict of interest in that the professor who is delivering or facilitating the material is also handing out the grade. Perhaps the assessment should be done instead by a different faculty member. And when you look nationwide, some grading is probably too harsh as well. I have seen data from other colleges showing some very high failure rates. Obviously not all grades are inflated. In fact, at many two-year colleges around the country, average grades have been falling lately.

Have you been surprised by the amount of media coverage generated by your research?

It is not really so surprising. Grade inflation is one of several trends in our modern society that is chronic and unsustainable, even if it is not a top issue. Grading is a subject of interest to many people because nearly everyone has gone to school and has received grades. In the back of our minds, we wonder what these grades mean. For some reason, grading seems to be a taboo topic. I am also interested in public access to grade statistics. You can go online and find all sorts of information about a college, such as its enrollment and graduation rate. But why is it that most colleges do not publish their grade distribution data? I am also surprised how little data or interest there is concerning grading at the K-12 level.

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