Harvard Is Completely Ordinary When It Comes to Grade Inflation

Join the club. "A" is the most common grade across the country.

National Journal

Sorry, Harvard, the news you dumped today isn't all that special. The most common grade awarded at your school is "A". So what? Welcome to the club of American academia. Grades have been on the rise nationally for decades. And "A" is the most common grade across the country.

According to the work of Stuart Rojstaczer, a former Duke Geophysics professor who is probably the most quoted source on this issue, the average GPA in American colleges rose from 2.52 in 1960 to 3.11 in 2006. That's nearly a whole letter grade higher.

The University of Delaware, which I attended, gave out a grade of A or A- 40 percent of the time in 2009. And that was just the average across all the colleges and departments. Seventy percent of those taking classes in the College of Education received A's.

Brown University made similar news in 2008 when it was revealed that more than 50 percent of all grades distributed were A's. Yale gives out A's 62 percent of the time. It would be much weirder if Harvard trended in the other direction.

Keep in mind there's a huge gulf in the grades of quantitative subjects like science and math and more qualitative subjects like English and history. At Delaware, for instance, the biology department only awarded A's 20 percent of the time.

Grade inflation is only a problem if you think GPAs are important. The more you compact all grades into the high 3.5-4.0 range, the less ability they have to illustrate meaningful differences between students.

That's a good thing for Harvard students, as grade inflation works in their favor, and it's bad news for everyone else. A study published in July found that, in an experiment, hypothetical students from a strict-grading school were admitted to MBA programs just 11 percent of the time while those from a grade-inflated school were admitted 72 percent of the time. That was true even though admissions officers were given the individual grades with the added context of how other students at that school performed.

"People rely heavily on nominal performance (such as GPA) as an indicator of success while failing to sufficiently take into account information about the distributions of performances from which it came," the authors concluded.

So good work, Harvard! Finally, your students will be noticed.