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Vassar grade inflation at double national rate

Guest Report and Features Reporter

Published: Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Updated: Wednesday, November 28, 2012 15:11


Jessica Tarantine/ The Miscellany News

The above graph illustrates Vassar’s current grade distribution with 83% of students receiving a B- or higher and only 5% receiving a C+ or less last year.

In many colleges and universities across the United States, grade inflation is on the rise, and Vassar is no exception. Yet, while the data paint a clear picture of rising grades, the causes, effects and remedies for the trend remain far less certain.

In the 1986-1987 academic year, only 24.1 percent of grades awarded at Vassar were either A’s or A-’s, in the 2009-2010 academic year that number was 52.2 percent—more than a 100 percent jump.

Dean of Faculty Jon Chenette explained, “Colleges nationwide have seen a rise in the mean grade point average of their graduates of about .1 each decade over the last several decades. Vassar’s average GPA has risen at almost twice that rate, from a graduating-senior mean GPA of 3.13 in 1989 to 3.52 in the class of 2012.”

Moreover, he said that currently, “83% of our grades are in [the B- to A] range. When you add another 10% of our grades that are “SA”

(Satisfactory Ungraded Work), and another 2% that are “PA” (Passing NRO), that leaves about 5% of grades in the C, D, and F range, with most of those being C+, C, or C-.”

One possible explanation for this trend is that students are simply performing better in classes. Tellingly, Vassar has become more selective over the years; it’s applicant pool has grown in size and qualifications over the years.

According to the Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid David Borus, in the last 12 years, the pool of applicants doubled from 4,000 to 8,000 candidates.“During that time, average SAT scores (critical reading and math combined) have risen by nearly 90 points, and the average high school GPA has increased from a B+ to an A-/A,” Borus said.

Thus, Vassar may well be attracting academically stronger students. Registrar Colleen Mallet explained, “many high schools offer more AP courses and a richer curriculum which strengthens students academically.”

However, for many letter grades on a piece of paper may not be enough to discern whether they are ‘smarter’ or not. “I think it is accurate to note that as a group, they have stronger academic credentials—at least on paper—than their predecessors did,” said Borus.

Whether or not this relates to higher average grades attained once they arrive in college seems to me to be speculation that I will leave to others.” However, as previously noted, Vassar is not the only institution dealing with the plight. “Grade inflation is not an isolated Vassar issue,” noted Registrar Colleen Mallet. “I was recently at a meeting of Registrar’s from our peer schools and they are also experiencing grade inflation... Smith, Mt. Holyoke, Wellesley, Wesleyan, Middlebury, Williams, Dartmouth, Amherst, Connecticut College.”

The Harvard Crimson reported that in June 1969, about 70 percent of students had a cumulative course grade average of B- or better; in June of 1974 that number reach 82 percent; and most recently in 2001, 91 percent of Harvard students graduated with honors.

Similarly, the Yale Herald reported that the average Yale grade was a B- in 1967. A B+ was the average in 1997, while in 2008, it was 3.49. 60 percent of Yale’s grades were likely within the A range. 

Even the University of Chicago, an infamously demanding institution, has not stemmed the tide.

A 2010 study by retired Duke University professor Stuart Rojstaczer and associate professor at Furman University Christopher Healy found that the University of Chicago saw its average GPA rise from 2.50 in 1965 to 3.26 in 1999 and 3.35 in 2006.

Indeed, many outright disagree with the notion that GPAs are rising because students are performing better and instead suggest that grading culture has changed. Some chalk this up to the Course Evaluation Questionnaires (CEQs) filled out by students at the end of each course. Professor of Political Science Richard Born explained, “There’s so many pressures on faculty to inflate the grades. It’s particularly intense on junior faculty because there are statistics, albeit at other institutions, that show a positive relationship between grades and CEQs. Even if there’s no clear-cut relation, simply there being a chance will make some anxious and want to play it safe.”

He continued, explaining that even without the CEQs there has been a shift in grading culture. “Giving a grade below a B- is basically in response to gross malfeasance. In other words, a student is not handing in a paper or does so a month late. As long as the student is fulfilling requirements: doing the assignments, handing them in on time, etc it’s very unlikely you’ll give a student a grade lower than a B- based on poor quality,” said Born. “Effectively speaking, something that is poor quality will receive a B-. Some years ago, this student may have received a C- or a D+.”

Overall, faculty thought that grade inflation led to students learning less. “I also believe that students nowadays are facing (and need to be prepared for) a globally competitive job market, which requires more skills and more effort than ever before,” said Professor of Economics Ergys Islamaj. “In that regard, it is imperative that students are held accountable to the right incentives and challenges in the classroom (tough grading is only one way to do so), and that they are best prepared for the professional world awaiting them after Vassar.”

“College is about matching your interests with what you can do best in your life and grade inflation may distort this matching mechanism and ultimately be very detrimental to students,” he finished.

Other professors were concerned about what grade inflation would mean for students’ employment prospects. 

“If we don’t keep up with other schools in regards to rising grades, then our graduates will be relatively handicapped when it comes to the job market or graduate school applications,” said Born.

Indeed for many graduate schools there is a large emphasis on high GPAs. “For those pursuing graduate and professional school, high undergraduate GPAs...are often necessary to gain admission to top PhD programs, law schools, and other competitive programs,” said Director of Career Development Stacy Bingham.

Despite this, some admissions committees are moving towards a more holistic approach. Assistant Dean of Studies/ Director, Office for Fellowships and Pre-Health Advising Lisa Kooperman explained, “[Many] fellowships do not stress grades as a driving factor in the selection process. Likewise medical schools are moving toward a more holistic approach to admissions. I would say that it is the “whole package” that matters more than any one factor in someone’s application.”

While the exact consequences of grade inflation remain debated, most faculty believe that grade inflation is a problem. On survey given in Spring 2011, 65% of the 124 faculty responders strongly agreed or somewhat agreed with the statement “Grade inflation is a serious problem detracting from the quality of student learning at Vassar.”

While faculty agree that it is a problem, they recognize that there is no quick fix. “[It’s a] collective action dilemma. Everyone behaving this way means everyone gets screwed. Yet it’s so difficult to change course because the individual or college that holds out will essentially hurt people,” said Born. “If everyone stopped grade inflation and used the corresponding letter grades, then individuals would not get hurt.”

“However, by following the mob, the problem perpetuates itself. If you don’t do so, professors can suffer because they can become less popular among the student body and either receive poor CEQs or have less students registered in their classes,” Born finished.

Overall, some felt a conflict between normatively being against grade inflation and practically not having to deal with negative consequences of being first to change. Ryan Murphy ’14 said, “Because we are compared to students from other schools when we apply to grad school and enter the workforce, grade inflation is beneficial to us so long as it is also happening elsewhere...[However,] Vassar, being a progressive institution, should be at the forefront of the fight against grade inflation, and not only make it a mission to curb such a practice within its own walls, but encourage its peer institutions to follow suit.”

The College is currently considering ways to limit grade inflation. While no solutions have been proposed by the faculty. At the Vassar Student Association on Nov. 11, Chenette addressed some of the methods used by other colleges. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill publishes the “schedule GPA” or average GPA of someone taking exactly the same schedule next to the students GPA. Another proposal is placing a cap on the median GAP of large introductory classes or setting a maximum percentage of students who can earn As or A-s. While the VSA was generally in support of contextualizing transcripts, there are no plans for a formal proposal from the faculty.  

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