A Few More Thoughts on Grade Inflation

Last week I gave three reasons why Yale shouldn’t worry so much about grade inflation:

  1. There is still enough room at the top of the grade distribution to separate students into Excellent (A), Good (A-), and Good enough (B+).
  2. It doesn’t matter that you can’t reasonably compare today’s students to students from more than five years ago.
  3. It’s actually a good thing for Yale undergraduates because employers and graduate schools like high grades.

This doesn’t mean we should wash our hands and walk away–There are still some issues with grades that should be addressed. First, grade distributions are still rising and we could end up in a place where there isn’t enough room at the top to distinguish great students. That wouldn’t be fair to those students because they are the ones who should get into the best graduate schools and get the best jobs. It would be nice to put the brakes on grade inflation even if we don’t need to reverse it. The economics department has had some success holding grade distributions steady since we started suggesting grade guidelines to our faculty before the end of every semester. They aren’t requirements, but the faculty do seem to take them seriously.

The second issue is that grade distributions at Yale vary across departments. In general, grades are higher (and more compressed) in courses that judge students based on essays, papers, and class participation where it’s just hard to assign a numeric grade. It’s easier to do so in courses that have more exams and problem sets where it’s much clearer what’s right and wrong, and these classes tend to have more “traditional” grade distributions. This means students who care about grades shy away from classes and majors that are more likely to lower their GPA even if those classes might be more interesting or beneficial in the long-term. I’ve had students who want to go to law school but feel like they won’t get into a top program because they took too much science and math.

I don’t think it makes sense to force or even suggest that all classes follow the same grade distribution. Even in my department, the guidelines are different for the more quantitative/analytical core classes than the more creative/applied advanced classes. I think the best way to head off potential future grade inflation is for departments to have their own suggested grading guidelines that may depend on the type of course.

Incentivizing students to take the more harshly graded classes and enroll in the “tougher” majors is a harder problem, and I don’t have an answer. I do know that at my alma mater, students’ rank in their graduating class and in their major was on their transcript. I think doing this at Yale would be better than doing nothing. Some grad schools and employers would ignore this information, but the smarter ones would use it to identify the best students.

NOTE: It should be glaringly obvious from a brief perusal of this site that I do not speak on behalf of Yale.