43% College Students Get A’s: Are Grades Useless?


The “Gentleman C” is becoming a thing of the past. According to a report from Teachers College Record , about 43 percent of students at more than 200 four-year colleges and universities receives A’s. In contrast, the amount of B’s awarded has remained constant but the number of Cs, Ds and Fs has shrunk, with only about 10 percent of grades awarded being Ds and Fs. Private colleges are the “biggest offenders” in the grade inflation department, with A s and Bs comprising 73 percent of all grades awarded at public schools, and 86 percent of all grades awarded at private schools.

Also, schools whose emphasis is science and engineering tend to be “stingier” with their As than liberal arts schools: Certainly, grades for subjects like mathematics and the natural sciences are more likely to be based on scores on tests and exams for which there are right and wrong answers, while grades for many humanities classes are often based primarily on students’ written work and the admittedly “fuzzy” criterion of “class participation.”

As the New York Times Economix blog points out, the study’s researchers, Stuart Rojstaczer and Christopher Healy (a former Duke geophysics professor and a computer science professor at Furman University, respectively), say the steep rise in A’s isn’t due to “higher quality” or better-prepared students. Rather, the upsurge is due to what you might call a rampantly consumerist attitude now entrenched in American higher education:

… the researchers argue that grade inflation began picking in the 1960s and 1970s probably because professors were reluctant to give students Ds and Fs. After all, poor grades could land young men in Vietnam.

They then attribute the rapid rise in grade inflation in the last couple of decades to a more consumer-based approach to education, which they say has created both external and internal incentives for the faculty to grade more generously. More generous grading can produce better instructor reviews, for example, and can help students be more competitive candidates for graduate schools and the job market.

The authors argue that grading standards may become even looser in the coming years, making it increasingly more difficult for graduate schools and employers to distinguish between excellent, good and mediocre students.

Another factor that could be behind grade inflation is that colleges and universities are employing increasing numbers of non-tenure track faculty, especially to teach “core” classes. Some of these faculty are full-time instructors (with benefits) at colleges, but others are adjuncts — “contract workers,” in essence — who may well teach a number of classes at a number of schools on any given week or day. Instructors in such positions may feel inclined, consciously or not, to give higher grades to increase their scores on evaluations (official and online), and therefore the possibility of getting rehired for another semester.

Rojstaczer and Healy note that grade inflation occurs the most at the most selective (i.e. Ivy League) schools, with potentially detrimental effects for the students:

It is likely that at many selective and highly selective schools, undergraduate GPAs are now so saturated at the high end that they have little use as a motivator of students and as an evaluation tool for graduate and professional schools and employers.

A number of colleges (including Princeton) have indeed issued guidelines about grading and faculty are informed that only a certain percentage of students is supposed to receive grades. Students have countered they could be unfairly penalized in applying for graduate schools and fellowships. For a real change to be made in rise of grade inflation, all, or most, schools would somehow have to get all their faculty on board to change their grading policies — something that would be about as easy to do as the proverbial herding of the cats.

My own school has not (yet) made too much about grade inflation. We are not one of those “highly selective schools.” I don’t know the figures for how many A’s, B’s, etc., get awarded at my college, but, have done a fair share of academic advising with many students over the years. While students who are in the college’s Honors Program do tend to be very watchful of their GPAs (and worried about taking classes that might lead to lower grades), plenty of students have academic records that aren’t exacty studded with A’s and B’s. Indeed, I’ve had times when it’s clear a student is capable of A-level work, but circumstances — family demands, part-time jobs, money woes, “life” — intrude and a lower grade has to be given.

In such cases, I do let the student know what their “real” grade should have been.


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Debbie L.
Debbie Lim5 years ago

If too many people get As, then the value of that grade will diminish.

Catt R.
Catt R.5 years ago

Why assume the grades are being inflated? Could it not be that in this economy the people in school are SERIOUS serious ? many of us have been out there in the world and know it is not easy. We view school as a chance and we are going to do our best to gain all we can from this chance. What is with the mentality that a certain percentage MUST fail to validate education? Today's community college students are not children trying to find themselves, they are adults fighting for survival, and their goal is for EVERYONE in their study group to succeed. Of course this is viewed as suspect.

K s Goh
KS Goh5 years ago

Thanks for the article.

Brian Steele
Brian Steele5 years ago

It doesn't help the economy to inflate grades or reduce the difficulty of exams. Keeping them difficult and therefore allowing colleges to give lots of As if it is a particularly strong year group is best, because then normally there will be the traditional spread of all grades in most years. After all, while university courses are certainly supposed to equip students for life and a career, much of the point of school leaving exams is to give a measure of ability and to give everyone the same grade is therefore pointless.

The biggest problem here in the UK is the dumbing down of school leaving exams so that firstly the kids don't have enough knowledge for their university courses (in Engineering and Sciences, for example, they spend much of their first year being taught things that they used to know when they left school), and secondly the colleges cannot differentiate between applicants. How can you make offers to students based on getting good school leaving grades if they all get straight As?

Some of the better schools are wising up to this and ditching the traditional exams in favour of their own, or colleges are looking to set entrance exams again so that they can somehow get back to allowing differentiation.

Velmapearl Hawkins
Velma Hawkins5 years ago

Grades are most certainly useful when going for a degree and when measuring progress. But too much emphasis is sometimes put on getting all A's

Danuta W.
Danuta Watola5 years ago

Interesting article - Thanks

Maureen H.
Maureen Hawkins5 years ago

There is no point in curving the grades of a class of fewer than 50 students; the sample isn't large enough to be statistically valid. I taught at a university where professors had to account for not having a bell curve in larger classes, but it was accepted that exceptions could occur.

Megan H.
Megan Hurley5 years ago

On the other hand, my general chemistry class was forced to have a bell curve by the department. Out of 350 students, ten could get As. There was even once a backward curve where students did "too well" and those with Bs were given Cs for the sake of being "fair". Because I want to apply to graduate school and I'm sure most schools don't work that way, I'll take the grade inflation, please.

Patrick Donovan
Patrick Donovan5 years ago

Well, if I was paying for something, then I'd want to make sure I got my money's worth. Ooops, that right, I did. In 1967, I took the toughest courses on a Pass/Fail basis in lieu of grades. Only the grades counted in the GPA.

Why should kids be any different today?

Christine S.

I hate curves just for the sake of a curve. If all the students are brilliant, and the professor is very good, why can't everybody get A's, instead of the people who get 100 get an A, and the people who get 90 fail! (far-fetched, I know!) If the subject is very hard, and the professor sucks, maybe everyone gets 50 %- does that mean everybody fails? I do disagree with grade inflation, but if the professor is ethical, maybe many A's are in order and not lazy or cheating...