Warning: The gentleman’s C is dead … long live the gentleman’s A

Yep, grade inflation is alive and well.

The Washington Post reported findings from a 70-year retrospective analysis of college grades.

The central conclusion:

“Across the country, wherever and whatever they study, mediocre students are increasingly likely to receive supposedly superlative grades.”

In other words, these days, A is the new “average”.

Now, almost half of all grades given are A’s … triple the percentage from a few decades ago.

C’s – the old “average” – is dying a slow, steady death … and, there’s a higher likelihood of a student being struck by lightning than getting hit with an F.




Here are some explanatory snippets and my take …


According to the WaPo article:

These findings raise questions not only about whether the United States has been watering down its educational standards … (and) lend credence to the perception that campuses leave their students coddled, pampered and unchallenged, awarding them trophies just for showing up. 

The researchers attribute much of today’s (grade) inflation to the consumerization of higher education.

That is, students pay more in tuition, and expect more in return — better service, better facilities and better grades … which at least gives them a leg up in employment and graduate school admissions through stronger transcripts. 

But (grade inflation) makes it harder to accurately measure how much students have learned.

So, it’s more challenging for grad schools and employers to sort the superstars from the also-rans


My take: After doing this teaching gig for a couple of decades (yep, I’m getting my 20-Year Medal this week), I’ve concluded:

1) Grading tools are blunt instruments with a lot of subjectivity … and criteria “drift”.

For example, several years ago I co-taught a course with a like-minded prof.  Before grading the final exams, we made copies of 10 randomly selected exams and we both graded all 10.

The result: 6 of the exams got about the same grades from both of us; the other 4 were way different …  I thought some were good, he didn’t … and vice versa.

That’s gotta give you pause.


2) A lot of grading time is spent on on precision that is more apparent than real … and, in the final analysis, doesn’t really matter.

In recent years, the bulk of grading complaints that I’ve gotten have been from students who got a B+ … and thought that they deserved an A-.

Gimme a break.

Who can spot the difference … really?

Yet it chews up a lot time.


3) I’m more concerned with “certification” that a student has mastered the bulk of the critical skills being taught.

On the chart above, I’m more concerned about the dirth of F’s that are given.

Seriously, I’m less concerned about the mix of A’s and B’s than I am about the mix of F’s and not-F’s.

I cross paths with a lot of MBAs from a mix of top schools.

I’ve concluded that a statistically significant fraction of them are functionally illiterate in business.

I’m talking stuff like being able to read a fairly simple P&L or balance sheet.

What students learn isn’t the full-load of what they’re taught … and it shows.

If students aren’t “certifiable” in courses, they shouldn’t pass them, right?

But, teacher sign up for a lot hassle if they flunk somebody.

Much easier to pass the problem on to somebody else.


4) Yep, we academics have shifted the evaluative burden to employers.

If transcripts don’t tell the story, then employers have to do more due diligence.

Start by looking at the components of the transcript – the courses.

Are students taking basket-weaving or nuclear physics?

Ducking hard courses tells you a lot about a student’s skills and motivation.  Maybe more than their GPA.

Then, make interviews rigorously evaluative … not just social chatting.

Remember, all students are now well-coached in interviewing … so employers need to dig deeper to get beneath the superficialities.



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