Grade Inflation

Elite Institutions

While the problem of grade inflation is ubiquitous, Zirkel (1999) reports that "many prestigious undergraduate institutions are leading rather than resisting the trend" (p. 249). Average grades at the most selective colleges are higher than at less selective schools (Adelman, 1999), a problem which Zirkel (1999) attributes to "A self-reinforcing sense of superiority and arrogance at the top-tier institutions" (p. 252).

At Harvard, the proportion of undergraduate grades of A- or higher increased from 22 percent in 1966 to 43 percent in 1991 (Lambert, 1993). Today, at Harvard, half of undergraduate grades are As (Mansfield, 2001). At Princeton, the proportion of students with As and Bs increased from 69.2 percent in 1973 to 1977 to 83.3 percent in 1992 to 1997 (Archibold, 1998). Currently, at Princeton, 80 percent of undergraduates receive nothing but As and Bs (Zirkel, 1999). At Dartmouth College, Pedersen (1997) reports that GPAs have increased from 3.06 to 3.23 in a 26 year period. At Duke University, the mean GPA rose from 2.7 in 1969 to 3.3 in 1996 (Gose, 1997a). Stanford University has reinstated the F grade, eliminated in 1970, after it was determined that 93 percent of recorded grades were As and Bs (Pedersen, 1997).

At the same time, grade inflation is a concern within smaller or less selective colleges and universities in both Canada and the United States. For example, in a study of seven Ontario universities researchers found that grade inflation had been significant at every university in almost every subject in a twenty year period, though some subjects were inflated more than others and widely different grading standards apply within a univeristy (Anglin and Meng, 2000; Frank, 2001). The trend toward grade inflation at the upper end of the marking scheme was in English, French, music, and biology. At the other end of the spectrum, most of the inflation was accounted for by fewer fails being assigned in many of the sciences, including chemistry, math, and economics, although they too experienced some increase in the proportion of As (Frank, 2001).

Update: Dr. Winzer notes that since this paper was originally written in 2002, the trend at elite institutions may have been reversed, as Harvard and other institutions responded to the trends detailed above and made efforts to return to a "B" average.

© Margret Winzer, 2005. This site last updated: May 3, 2005