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What is Grade Inflation?

Tricia Christensen
Updated Mar 02, 2024
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Grade inflation describes a phenomenon occurring in many university settings that shows a continued rise in the number of higher grades assigned to students. Grade inflation has led to higher grade point averages, and tends to most often occur in humanities courses. Science and math classes show less incidence of grade inflation, but there are small increases or surveys of courses that have watered down material in order for more students to achieve a higher grade.

A survey of numerous private schools, for example, showed that the average grade point average (GPA) in the years from 1991-1992 was 3.11, a slightly better than B average. Ten years later the GPA had risen to 3.26. In many public universities, similar results are shown.

Some universities have demonstrated great concern about what they perceive as grade inflation and have instituted policies in order to try to stem rising grades. Policies like allowing no more than 25% of the class to receive As, or reintroducing grading on a curve have reduced grade inflation in some instances. However, many universities still show rising grades, and these are most frequently private universities like Harvard, Princeton, and Dartmouth.

Many students feel, especially if they attend a university where grade inflation is not significant, that lower grades can significantly damage their opportunities to gain employment after attending universities. It is hard to compete with a near straight-A student from a university that has shown grade inflation, especially if one’s grades are lower. Grade inflation, some claim, give certain students an unfair advantage in the job market, or when applying to graduate schools.

Further, in school, a student may be negatively affected by grade inflation, or now, grade deflation policies, when it comes to earning merit scholarships. Students may also have a “consumer” mindset where grades are concerned. By paying large amounts in tuition to attend college, they may have an expectation that they should be awarded with good grades. As consumers, they are paying for a product, and want the full benefits of that product. Low grades do not serve them in the marketplace.

Some attempts have been made to show that grade inflation is the natural result of superior students. It is true that universities overall have become increasingly more competitive. Some of the private universities listed above are unlikely to accept students with less than a 4.0 average. Since competition for Ivy League schools is so high, such schools get to pick the “best of the bunch,” and may have a higher number of high-performing students.

Yet grade inflation has affected numerous universities, some with less rigorous standards for accepting students. There is little evidence to demonstrate that students today are better educated than they were ten years ago. In fact, some evidence points to the contrary. Thus better quality students cannot conclusively account for a steady rise in GPA.

Some schools have shown little evidence of grade inflation, which represents part of the problem. Uniform grade inflation at all colleges would mean all students would essentially remain competitive with each other for getting into top schools or gaining employment. Certain schools, however, have a history of little change in grading standards. Such schools include Iowa State, Purdue University, University of California-Irvine, and Washington State.

Many attribute the trouble with consistent grading standards to the highly subjective nature of grades, particularly in humanities coursework. Even with standards in place, individual teachers are likely to grade work like essays in completely different manners. To this end some universities have had a non-grading policy in the past. Until recently, students at University of California-Santa Cruz were not graded but only received credit or no credit for their classwork.

This system, however, was abolished a few years ago, since so many scholarships are dependent upon a verifiable grade point average. While universities attempt to address grade inflation, students are left to either benefit or suffer from the results of these attempts. Their grades may reflect grading practices that are either too harsh or too soft.

Practical Adult Insights is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Practical Adult Insights contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

Discussion Comments

By anon277708 — On Jul 01, 2012

It hard because the college I am going through has an HD GPA of 91 percent and above, where other higher education institutions have an 80-85 precent HD GPA.

I'm studying for a nutrition degree and need a high score to gain entry into the dietetics program. I think it's unfair that we're not graded on the same standard of content and do not have the same equality on grades.

By anon91381 — On Jun 21, 2010

it could also be that education is seen by an increasing ratio of students as a worthwhile endeavor while in grade school and consequently develop better study habits.

Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen


With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Practical Adult Insights contributor...
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