Make American Colleges Grade Again!

A Case for More Meritocracy at American Universities

By guest author Richard Vedder
April 17, 2020

With all the disruption of academic life and finances by COVID-19 (see my last three epistles), colleges are almost certainly going to need what the late Clayton Christensen called “disruptive innovation” this fall. The problem: with budgets almost certainly severely constrained (despite the Feds dropping some money out of airplanes, or the equivalent, over college campuses), how can you improve the educational product to attract students and serve society without spending money?

Enter Grace Greason, a writer for the Harvard Crimson and the Harvard Political Review and I suspect a Harvard undergraduate. In a wonderful article (providing the source for this post’s headline), Grace showed how debilitating grade inflation is at our nation’s leading universities. Grades below A- are a rarity at many schools, making it difficult for employers and others to distinguish between superb students and slackers.

While grade inflation is slightly less substantial at less selective admissions schools attended by the bulk of American college students, it is even a bigger problem there, especially for the best and brightest of their students. I have taught or attended several highly selective universities and liberal arts colleges, and my own experience is that the very best (top one or two %) of students at my mid-quality state school is as good as the average student attending highly selective schools like Harvard or Yale—and generally better than Harvard and Yale slackers getting 3.5-grade point averages without doing much work. Yet these very high-quality individuals at schools like mine are hurt by grade inflation—4.0 GPA students are numerous—too many for the best to stand out to graduate schools and top-flight employers doing the hiring.

But the biggest problem is that grade inflation is probably the largest single reason that today’s students on average spend more time partying than studying, reading, writing papers, etc. We greatly underutilize vital human resources. Time Use Survey and other data show the typical college student who spent 40 hours weekly on academic work in the middle of the 20th century spends about one-third less (27 hours) today. Students work less hard than their parents are working to send them to school. Working 40 hours a week on academics might net a student a 3.8 GPA instead of a 3.6 earned with normal study behavior—not enough better to justify 13 hours weekly more studying when partying or video-game opportunities loom. This leads to disappointment and worse among employers, generating high “underemployment” of recent college grads.

Grade inflation has been happening for many decades, but the big surge began around 1970, I think probably largely because of two phenomena. First and most important, student evaluations of professors became popular and meaningful, and professors thought (correctly) they could buy some degree of popularity by giving high grades. Second, some believe there was some raising of grades to reduce the possibility that students would be drafted during the Vietnam War, although personally I did not sense that factor at the time.

The elite schools have been somewhat embarrassed by the appearance of a lack of standards and accordingly have made some attempts to curb grade inflation, but those efforts typically failed after a number of years and they reverted back to the prevailing “high grades for all” standard. Part of the problem is schools don’t want to be out of line with their competitors. If the average GPA at Yale and Princeton is 3.90, but only 3.20 at Harvard, Harvard students, and potential applicants might feel disadvantaged, and employers might shun their graduates. Just as in the Cold War, when neither the U.S. or the Soviet Union felt they could unilaterally disarm, necessitating arms agreements, so American universities unlikely will change their policies unilaterally.

There are two groups that probably could end grade inflation nationally: the regional accreditation organizations or the U.S. Department of Education. The seven regional accrediting agencies could agree on, say, a maximum permitted average GPA for all undergraduate students of 3.20 (I would prefer 2.8 or even 2.5, about what it was when I was an undergraduate at Northwestern), and perhaps we could gradually move to such a standard.

By making American colleges grade again, we can make American college students work again as well.


This piece originally appeared on the Independent Institute website, here.