In College, Is It Too Easy to Get An A?

It’s a troublesome question: in a given college class, how many students should be able to get “A’s”?  Or, as the New York Times asks in the introduction to a recent article, “If everybody in the class gets an A, what does an A mean?” 

According to Andrew Perrin, a sociologist at UNC Chapel Hill, “An A should mean outstanding work; it should not be the default grade.  If everyone gets an A for adequate completion of tasks, it cripples our ability to recognize exemplary scholarship.”

Perrin is on a committee which has been tasked with the difficult job of clarifying just what a grade in any given class means.  The committee may recommend including median grades on transcripts, and giving professors information about how their grading compares to their colleagues’.  Other schools, including Dartmouth and Columbia, have taken such measures, and Reed College, where last year’s graduating class had an average GPA of 3.20, includes an explanatory card.

Princeton, where I’m a senior, has perhaps the most controversial method of addressing grade inflation, a policy implemented in 2004 that stipulates that no more than 35 percent of undergraduate grades should be A’s.  This policy, known as “grade deflation,” mostly affects students in large lecture classes, and worries some who claim that in a tough job market, professors should be free to give as many A’s as they feel are deserved.  They feel that the letter explaining grade deflation that accompanies every transcript is not sufficient for employers who may not know that an A at Princeton is more difficult to achieve.  Other students say that they are deterred from taking more difficult classes because they don’t want to deal with the competition for a set number of high grades.

As a religion major who takes mostly seminars (where grade deflation tends not to apply), I can’t say I’ve ever felt that I’ve been affected by grade deflation, or that I’ve been given a grade I didn’t deserve.  At the same time, I can understand the frustrations of students who work hard in classes where they know they have a lower chance of receiving the highest possible grade.  But ultimately, I think grade deflation is a good idea, even if Princeton’s implementation isn’t perfect – after all, A’s do become meaningless when they are given to most of the students, and not all students deserve A’s, even if they felt they’ve done A work.  I wonder, though, if including median grades isn’t the best way to solve the problem – it places the grade in context, rather than imposing a blanket restriction that angers students and confuses or frustrates professors.

What do you think?  Is it better to include median grades, or apply a policy like grade deflation?  Are there other, better ways for universities to handle grade inflation?

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.


Martha Eberle
Martha Eberle7 years ago

35% should get "A"s?? "A" is supposed to be a superior grade for extraordinary work -- I would think even 10% is high. Most people, even those going to college, are average. An "A" should mean something when a student earns it, and prospective hirers, see it.

Brian Steele
Brian Steele7 years ago

In Britain, A' Level (12th grade) grades have improved most years for the last 20 years. New examinations were introduced for 10th graders back in the mid-80's and grades jumped immediately and similarly have improved ever since.

The question is, has teaching got better or have the exams got easier? My 11 year-old son has been doing age 16 exam questions recently and I can certainly see why he is finding some of them so insultingly easy.

If all the students in a class are of outstanding standard, then they all deserve an A, but I feel strongly that the questions should separate the full cross-section of students.

As so many here were getting A grades, they introduced the A*. My old school is now producing more A* grades than we used to achieve A's in my day and we were no slouches ourselves.

Universities are now complaining that they cannot differentiate between applicants, because too many are predicted top grades so some are talking about opting out of the system and introducing their own qualifications of known standard.

Universities have long talked about a need to extend some course lengths, as they spend so much time teaching students things they used to know when they arrived.

The trouble is that none of this helps those who would have got high marks in harder exams. This is why we need to reboot the system, so as to give a true assessment of students relative to each other.

Chloe M.
Chloe M7 years ago

I just made an A in one my classes this past semester that I was sure I would have made a B in. I started off with a 76 on my first test and then went to a 85 and a 86.5. I still didn't think that was high enough to get an A, but the final was a 120 questions. I must have barely missed any; I studied hard for that test! I'm proud of myself to have brought up my grade from a C to an A in an upper level science course (pathophysiology). I managed to keep my GPA high throughout college, even nursing school, and I don't think that was done on teachers handing out easy As. I went to class everyday, read, studied, completed assignments, and did what I was supposed to do. If a class is harder that I expected (sugh as in this case) I just put more time into it. Each teacher is different and it takes me until after the first test to see how my study methods work with them and then I tweak it some if I have to. My high school felt like a college so when I actually got to college I was relieved to not have 8 classes to worry about anymore. I should have got an associate's after all that.

Brittany Dudas
Brittany D7 years ago

When I was at Villanova, I had to work hard just to get a B, an A, even harder.

Jessie M.
Jessie M7 years ago

Grades are very arbitrary except when it comes to straight fact based testing. It shuold be the instructor's discretion although then you get the type of prof that pride themselves on never giving A's. If a high grade isn't achievable then it kind of loses it's meaning. Also if no one gets an A then the prof must not be teaching the material properly!

Bob H.
Bob H.7 years ago

I think if you had a class full of over achievers, and they all master the work above and beyond the average student, not the average student in the specific class, but the average college student period, they should all receive A's. Grades are suppose to mark how well a student masters a specific subject, not just how much more work or sucking up they do compared to the other students. That's why grade deflation or bell curve fitting is ridiculous; however, I agree that giving everyone A's, just because they satisfy the bare minimum goals of the class devalues grades altogether, so maybe the professors should put a little more effort into thinking what is beyond expectations of an average college student.

Dan B.
Dan Brook7 years ago

I tell my students that A is excellent, B is good, C is mediocre, D is just passing. While it is subjective, I try to stick to that.

Christina B.

I can't say if it's too easy to get an A, but I can say that courses are too dichotomous in their grading. As a current college student, I can spend fifteen minutes per week on a class and get an A yet spend twenty hours studying for one class and get a B or C. I have many friends in other majors whose classes are full of easy seminars where grading is irrelevant and they come out with an A even if they only went to class once during the entire semester. To me, GPA is completely irrelevant because there's no standard even within a university.

Lori B.
Lori B.7 years ago

Whether or not one's future employer cares about the grade that you received in your poli-sci course during your sophomore year in college is irrelevant. Ultimately, it comes down to you should receive the grade according to how well you mastered the learning goals of the course. If you did not master the targets there is no reason to receive an A. When one is in school (at least in the traditional manner) that is there job. Therefore, it should be the student's duty to perform to the best of their ability and to have the expectation that their teachers are not inflating or deflating their attempts and progress to meet university/departmental standards.

Terry B.
Terry B7 years ago

I dunno about getting an A, but something is surely happening as society is rapidly dumbing down.