Parajuli: The Issue With Inflation

by Abhishek Parajuli | 9/28/14 6:33pm

The average grade at Harvard was about a C+ 65 years ago, according to Stuart Rojstaczer, a former Duke professor. Today, it is roughly an A-. What does this tell us? Well, the biggest lesson from this statistic is that averages can be misleading.

There is rampant grade inflation at Dartmouth, but it may be driven by a few departments trying to draw in more students.

Take the theater department, which graduated only eight majors in 2013. Based on analysis of grades awarded between 2007 to 2011 (carried out by Brian Solomon ’11 at Dartblog), the median student in that department got an average grade of an A. He also noted that the average median grade of classes in theater, Arabic and Chinese were 3.9, 3.86 and 3.81, while those for classes in chemistry, biology and math were 3.22, 3.33, 3.34. While grades are not necessarily an indication of how challenging a class is, it seems that grade inflation, or higher grades in general, is more common in the humanities than in the sciences and social sciences. I wondered why this was the case.

One possible explanation is that departments and faculty may be inflating grades to attract more students. At a departmental level, we can see if this is true by comparing the average enrollment in classes offered by a department and a department’s median grade. Data on average enrollments is not publicly available, but the College lists economics, government, history, engineering sciences, psychology, brain sciences and the biological sciences as the most popular majors, which suggests those department’s classes are also among the most popular. The average grades in these departments are also the lowest. Correlation is not causation, but the link is stark. Perhaps the smallest departments are inflating grades to draw in students and remain relevant.

This scramble for students may play out within departments as well. I worry that in departments with subfields, the popularity of the courses in each area drives the hiring within the subfields. Courses with higher median grades, all else being equal, have higher enrollments, potentially creating perverse incentives to inflate grades and fill classes. The government department just formalized a grading policy limiting the median grade for seminars to an A- and non-seminars to a B+. Looking for changes in hiring patterns before and after this rule could demonstrate if intra-department politics play into grade inflation, too.

At an individual level, professors may also be inflating grades to fill their classes. Because hiring and tenure decisions depend largely on research and teaching, student satisfaction and the ability to fill classes may marginally matter. Assistant professors who have not received tenure may be more likely to play the game to get good student evaluations and fill classes. Full professors, on the other hand, have little incentive to inflate grades. If assistant professors are inflating grades to fill classes and get better student evaluations, their median grades should be significantly higher than those for full professors. The data to investigate this hypothesis is actually published by the department, with course syllabi revealing which professors taught specific sections of the same course, and termly median grades showing how “easily” they graded. While I have not run a proper regression, a cursory glance at the data suggests junior faculty inflate their grades to get positive student reviews and fill classes. Anecdotal evidence from the Brown Daily Herald also suggests that this is true, as they wrote on March 12, “Dean of the Faculty Kevin McLaughlin said student course evaluations, which play a large role in evaluating faculty members’ teaching, exacerbate the frequency with which As are handed out.”

Grade inflation hurts us all. As the problem becomes institutional, employers and others start discounting the GPA in favor of other tools like standardized test scores. This is already the case — some investment banks and management consulting firms ask applicants to report SAT scores on their resumes. If the administration is serious about tackling the issue, it must start targeting the departments that are really driving the problem. If junior faculty are found to be inflating grades, promotion practices may need to be redesigned to discourage this practice. Dartmouth can and should do more to make grades count.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction appended (Sept. 29, 2014):

The online edition of this column inserted Jon Miller's column in the same link. These links have been revised.