After the graduation ceremony commenced, CALS students tossed grad caps into the air on Schoelkopf Field. Although this tradition isn't a part of the commencement ceremony, the act is imbedded in American graduation culture, so some students partake regardless. (Katrien de Waard / Sun Staff Photographer)

January 25, 2024

SCHWARZ & SPARACIO | The Issue of Grade Inflation

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Rebecca: Let us discuss grade inflation and its implications.

Dan: I know you are aware of the NY Times article on grade inflation at Yale and we have similar evidence of grade inflation in high school. We also know college students study less

Based on GPA, Cornell Phi Beta Kappa Honor Society issues invitations to three percent of the Arts and Sciences juniors and seven percent of the Arts and Sciences seniors. As Faculty President of the Cornell chapter since 2009, I can see how the GPA cut-off creeps up every year. In 2004 before we reinstituted Junior induction, the cutoff was 3.821 for the top 10 per cent. In 2023, the cutoff for Seniors was 4.047, meaning that 10 percent of the class had over a 4.0.

What was a B or even a B- in the classes I taught is now an A-, and that may be understating the difference between 1968-1969 — the first of my 56 years as a Cornell faculty member — and now. Except for an Honors essay, I never gave an A+ in a course until maybe six or eight years ago. I still have given very few, but now in many humanities courses A+ is a common grade. I do give a great many more A’s (without a minus) than I used to.

Grade inflation undermines accountability and homogenizes different degrees of performance into one. My major advisees in the past few years have averaged at least a 3.75 GPA and quite a bit higher in their Literatures in English — formerly English Department— classes. 

I wonder if my younger colleagues who — including those with the highest standards — were themselves graded in what I smilingly call the New Dispensation (i.e. in the midst of grade inflation) have different ideas of what an A or A+ means than I do. Some of them contribute to what some of us older professors think of as over-generous grading and, so as not to hurt our students, we older professors (perhaps timidly) follow. While it is a simplification to blame grade inflation on younger colleagues, it is also true that younger faculty need strong teaching evaluations and we know generous grading produces those.

Rebecca: I suspect that regardless of work ethic, and in part because of their high school experience, entering students expect to receive higher grades than when you began to teach.  

Students often believe that it is easier to get A’s in the humanities than in the sciences; while that is probably true, it is not true of all  humanities courses. I found in my experience, supplemented by conversations with my friends, that in terms of grading rigor, there is a mix of professors in the humanities not only in terms of grades but more importantly in terms of expectations. Some expect a lot from students in return for an A; others have lower expectations and reward almost all students with an A.

Dan: A rigorous professor can define expectations in the opening session of a course, particularly a non-required course, and weed out those who want to take what I call “coasting classes.”  My grading has become more generous because I am not teaching large lectures, and it is easier to measure accountability in small classes. Once I tell students the first day that I insist on APP — attendance, preparation, and participation — the students who want to coast find another course. 

Rebecca: Does grade inflation matter? Do grades correlate with success, especially if one’s degree is from a top university? I would argue that the pandemic brought into the spotlight a general question, which is: Does high performance on exams even correlate to intelligence? The Ivy League is getting rid of all sorts of rankings. Standardized tests like the SAT and ACT are no longer required, and many schools took themselves off of the U.S. News & World Report Higher Education rankings. Maybe grades and grade inflation are another aspect of this movement. At Brown one can choose to take a course S/U or for a grade, and the Brown letter grades do not include pluses and minuses. 

Dan: Grade inflation relieves pressure on those who might otherwise be in trouble by their not spending enough time on academic work. On the other hand, relieving grade pressure provides more time for extracurricular activities, socializing with friends, and social media.

We agree that during COVID-19, a somewhat invidious social contract developed where expectations were lowered, and some teachers and students made a minimum effort. In tacit exchange for students not complaining, they received high grades. Many faculty, perhaps dealing with their own COVID-related issues, graded higher.

Rebecca: The pandemic certainly changed grading norms. It was an unprecedented time for all of us — students and faculty — and many of us suffered from the disruption of normal life and even mental health problems. Faculty necessarily became more flexible when responding to quarantined students and of course, some dealt with personal issues and illnesses.

I remember feeling that there was a huge general change in college life between my COVID-ridden freshmen year and my sophomore year, where there was a transition from online to in-person classes. 

We agree that Science and Engineering professors are indeed more restrained in opting for higher grades. Perhaps this is because these disciplines are more objective especially when it comes to exams on actual information. Saying that these disciplines are more objective is not to dismiss their difficulty and the hard work that students put into these classes to perform well. 

This makes me wonder if it is the “subjective” nature of the humanities that makes them easier to do well in.  I think it’s probably easier to get an A when, apart from obvious incorrect readings of a text, there are multiple ways to perform an analysis and therefore multiple right answers. To be sure, being able to structure a paper in a clear, organized manner is to some extent the equivalent of getting the right answer on a problem set. 

Dan: Engineering and other STEM professors are more traditional in their grading policies, but even there my guess is we would find some grade inflation, in part because they, like all of us, are now more flexible when students have personal health or family issues. However, if not, most STEM professors still give exams in which there is a grade distribution if not a formal curve.

Rebecca: Students often decide for themselves what their college experience will mean for them and what they will do with it. Even at Cornell, some students emphasize extra-curricular activities at the expense of studying for classes. Students tailor their own university experience by choosing to take “easy A” classes, classes that they know will be challenging or some combination of both.  

Grade inflation may be beneficial in an increasingly difficult job market that rewards good grades. Students need a high GPA to get into top law schools and medical schools. Yet this might illuminate a conflict about what the goal of the university is. 

Dan: While colleges and universities seek to send students to the highest echelons of the job market and graduate schools, they also want to produce powerful thinkers who read critically, write lucidly and speak articulately. Many if not most employers tell me that GPAs do not matter much in their hiring decisions.

Rebecca: If getting an A is easier than ever, the University may be creating weaker thinkers and less focused graduates than in years past. It’s important to note that the nature of college is different now than in years past. It is easier and quicker to do research for papers and solve problem sets because of the internet. It’s difficult to tell whether or not there is a correlation between grade inflation and the quality of work that students perform. The hope is that the university produces well-rounded critical thinkers who will contribute to the betterment of society.

Dan: When grading — especially final grades — I am very conscious of giving grades that will enable students to compete and that plays a strong role in the inflations of my grades. 

I conclude with a few questions: Do Cornell students and faculty want to return to somewhat more rigorous grading that distinguishes between good and truly excellent performance in a course? Should we consider the Brown model?  In small courses, should we replace grading with S/U grades accompanied by individual written evaluations?

Daniel R. Schwarz is the Frederic J. Whiton Professor of English Literature and Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow in the College of Arts & Sciences. He is The Cornell Daily Sun’s 2023-2024 visiting columnist. He can be reached at [email protected].

Rebecca Sparacio is a senior in The College of Arts & Sciences. Her fortnightly column The Space Between is a discussion on student life, politics and community. She can be reached at [email protected].

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