Editor’s Note: On Grade Inflation

logoWithin the past week, there was an interesting debate in the Stanford Review’s blog about grade inflation. Otis Reid, the author of the blog article “Grade Inflation Must Go,” made an interesting case for why Stanford might want to reduce its mean grade from the current B+ range to something lower—perhaps a B or B-.

Otis makes a number of logical arguments in favor of grade deflation: it will make the As more meaningful, and it would allow for a broader distinction between students of different capabilities. If almost everybody is getting grades that range between A and B, how do you tell good students from the truly great ones?

Inherently, there are many logical reasons why grade inflation is a bad thing, as Otis rightly points out. But that being said, there are many practical reasons why grade inflation exists. And unless these underlying factors change, I believe that Stanford should not embark on a policy of deflating grades

A lot of Stanford students aspire to attend top graduate school, including law, medicine, and PhD programs. And top schools invariably take the grade point average (GPA) into close account. Although they often try to analyze the difficulty of students’ courses based on their transcripts, this process is imperfect. Many graduate admissions committees find it hard to tell the difference between As taken in easy classes and Bs earned in competitive classes. Faced with this situation, graduate schools simply choose to admit the straight-A students.

Proposed fixes don’t help much. Even if a transcript lists actual grades alongside mean grades (i.e. getting a B+ in a course where the average student received a B-), students with deflated grades will still face a disadvantage in the admissions process. Graduate schools are often ranked (at least partly) by the GPAs of their entering classes—with no adjustment for inflation or deflation. Students who get A+s in a class with an A- average will fare better than B+ students in a class with a B- average, all other things being equal.

Stanford students often have to compete for scholarships, fellowships, and jobs. Many scholarships—especially the more prestigious ones—have minimum GPA requirements. Many top employers look closely at transcripts before hiring, and they prefer to see a string of As. The context in which the grades are earned often matters less than the letter-grade result. This situation may be unfair, but it’s the reality of what students face.

Certain groups of Stanford students will be disadvantaged by grade deflation. Consider international students on government scholarships. Often, these students are required to maintain a minimum GPA—and the bar is often set very high at 3.7 or even 3.8. Even if these students study hard, they may lose their scholarships if courses are rigged in such a way that even elite students can only achieve 3.3 GPAs in a class that averages 3.0. For kids like these, it would be better to allow a situation where average grades are B+s and where hardworking students can get something in the A-range.

Moreover, a policy of grade deflation in any individual school is unlikely to be effective if other schools don’t follow suit. Stanford may reform its system so that average students get Bs. But if other schools don’t adopt similar policies, we will be faced with a situation where Stanford students will be applying for jobs with Bs, versus kids from other schools with inflated As. In that situation, Stanford students will face the automatic disadvantage of having to explain the true context of their Bs to their potential employers, while their competitors will enjoy the automatic advantages of having a clean string of As to show.

That being said, grade reform is not necessarily bad. On the contrary, the Stanford administration might want to consider implementing a more uniform standard of grades across departments. Too often, students in engineering and science departments tend to face bell curves and tough grading systems, while their counterparts in other departments enjoy higher grades given for participation and effort. On the whole, this system tends to penalize certain categories of Stanford students while benefiting others—often unfairly.

But on the whole, although grade inflation is undesirable, it may be a necessary evil. In the end, lots of people care about numbers—including many people who say they don’t. Every day, prospective employers and admissions officers compare students with 4.0 GPAs and 3.0 GPAs. And guess what? Four beats three.

Fiat Lux!

Chris Seck, Editor-in-Chief

P.S. (Corrections from Issue 3)

In the article “Ebrahim Moosa to Lead Pricey Egyptian Adventure for Alums,” it was stated that Professor Moosa is currently an assistant professor at Duke University.  He is actually an associate professor there.  We regret this error.
In addition, the article’s interpretation of the following quote has been removed: “America has had its nose so badly out of joint since September 11, 2001, when 19 hijackers and its few thousand foot soldiers slapped it in the face that it has become a proverbial bull in the global china shop.”

Editor's Note - Chris Seck.
Editor's Note - Chris Seck.
Editor's Note - Chris Seck.
Editor's Note - Chris Seck.
Editor's Note - Chris Seck.
Editor's Note - Chris Seck.
  • Eric

    Here is a simple solution.
    If most of the students get A’s and B’s and it becomes tough to distinguish one student’s performance from another, we can simply add a few more levels in the A’s and B’s range.
    e.g., A+ (4.3), A+- (4.15), A (4.0), A-+ (3.85), A- (3.7), A– (3.5), B+ (3.3), B+- (3.15), B (3.0), B-+ (2.85), B- (2.7), B– (2.5)
    (It’s like taking a page from the credit rating agencies!)