A Rant About Grade Inflation and GPA and A Half Baked Solution

What follows is a poorly organized rant about my frustrations with the current grading system, and a solution that makes sense to me in theory, but that I have never actually tested. This article was prompted by a recent discussion at a meeting of the Augustana Socratic Society.

First things first, there has recently been a push among certain people to make the claim that GPA does not matter. These people likely did not apply to graduate programs, many of which will ignore applicants with below a certain GPA or research internships that use it as a first pass filtering criteria. GPA matters a lot, but it is broken, and I see it broken for three clear reasons. Those reasons are: grade inflation, difficulty, and outside factors.

Let’s start with grade inflation. This has been pretty well covered by a variety of outlets, so all I am going to focus on here is some of my own experiences I can share with you guys. So first and foremost, I’m pretty sure this is happening at my own college. In 1944 the standard for the “Smart Set” at Augustana College was a 2.5 GPA and 34 students out of the 377 students enrolled. This is less than 10%. To make the list now requires a 3.5 GPA and 1,138 Students out of 2,647. This is about 43%. The standard has been raised by an entire grade and the number of people achieving it has quadrupled. This to me seems to suggest rampant grade inflation. This kind of grade inflation makes GPA’s much less meaningful as a useful determinant of academic ability. But as we have already established GPAs are important and because of that it leads to a secondary feature, grade grubbing. Students are desperate to do everything they can to preserve their GPA. Students will ask for teachers to round up, beg for extra credit, and do everything they can to eke out every single point they can in order to try to preserve their GPA. This puts Professor’s in an uncomfortable position, they often care deeply about their students and want them to be successful, and can understand the importance of GPA, but are also hesitant to change their standards or apply them in an unequal way. This is an uncomfortable position for every single person involved in the interaction. However, there are also students who Professors have described as acting as if they are entitled to a certain grade. The overall inflation of grades has made it such that students tend to react negatively to more difficult grading standards, which is understandable because again GPAS MATTER.

The second part of the issue is what I call the difficulty issue. Namely the way the current system is designed it currently strongly incentives against taking difficult classes, or classes outside of your expertise. Right now if you take a class that is something you are not good in, or a class with a difficult grading scale, it runs a decent chance of hurting your GPA. Since the GPA is important for so many students, those students are less likely to push themselves and take classes from different disciplines. This is especially disappointing for me to see at a school like Augustana College, which is supposed to be a liberal arts education in which students develop these interdisciplinary skills. And this makes me even crazier, because in the new economy those interdisciplinary skills are going to be much more important. Many (but not all) of the direct skills for fields like the sciences, math, and accounting and the like will be automated over the next three decades. Thus, the higher level thinking skills helped by an interdisciplinary approach will become those in demand. The current system due to this difficulty dilemma is actually contributing to a reduction in the most important skill development there could be.

The third part, and this is sometimes considered is what the student is doing outside of class. Now there are the areas that people do frequently think about, such as extracurricular involvement, but there are many that are often forgotten including jobs. There was a recent Washington Post article that suggested that 36% of students are food insecure. There are a huge number of students who are working incredible hours in order to get themselves through their college experience. This is an issue I cannot solve with my half baked solution, but is something that every single admissions committee should consider fully, and every college that considers raising their tuition should feel personally. These students are always going to have a more difficult time maintaining the same academic levels due to greater stress and less time to complete work. I worry that this factor is not being considered as fully as it needs to be by college administrators and by admissions committees.

So finally, my half baked solution to the GPA problem. I had this idea one day when I was really frustrated having one teacher tell me that it requires incredible effort to get a C, and then another saying that they don’t believe in C’s and that if you participate and show up you were basically guaranteed a B. Each of these classes will count equally towards my GPA. That doesn’t seem to make sense though does it? So what I propose instead, and this is only a partial solution, is to throw out GPA’s. Now I can already hear you protesting, and saying that there needs to be some way to differentiate students. I agree. What I propose instead is showing how students compare to the overall distribution of the class. Meaning instead of the grade being reported, you are directly told how far above or below mean you are, and you are given an idea of what the distribution looks like. This will make it so you are unequal classes no longer have equivalent weight. However, there are several issues I still see with it and I will do my best to answer them:

  1. What about small classes?

Good question. My first thought is that for teachers who have thought the same course in a similar way for extended periods of time, they can compile the data over many years and use that instead. However, there also may be times it’s a new class and for those we need to rely on the distribution description to help cover it.

2. What about classes outside your expertise?

This question is focusing on a question I raised earlier, basically students are disincentivized from taking classes outside their expertise. My answer is basically that it would be possible to segment this data to show data for majors vs. non-majors and give a more accurate number.

3. Won’t this promote a dangerous level of competition?

Quite honestly I hope so. I love and thrive on competition, and I see no reason making what is currently the implicit competition explicit will have negative effects.

4. Doesn’t this exacerbate the problem with students who are taking on significant work outside the classroom?

Unfortunately yes. I do think it would make it more clear which students are struggling to perform due to external obligations. The only solution I have been able to come up with for that is for admission committees to start taking note of that fact, and for there to be some kind of change in student loans and the continually rising tuition.

It is not a perfect solution, but it does provide an opportunity to help eliminate grade inflation, and make the GPA a more meaningful measure. There are ways to expand it for large universities, including difficulty quotients and the like, but that seems excessive to cover in here. Do you have any comments or ideas, please let me know. This was an unedited rant I put together quickly. I would love more developed and well-researched thoughts so I can improve my thinking, especially from educators.

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