Paul L. Caron

Monday, March 2, 2009

Lake Wobegon Michigan: 50 Years of Grade Inflation

The latest issue of the Law Quadrangle from the University of Michigan Law School has a great chart showing the impact of grade inflation over the past fifty years:

Michigan GPA

The changes from the 1950s to today are quite dramatic:

Michigan GPA Chart        

The reference in the title is to Garrison Keillor's fictional Lake Wobegon -- "where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average."  For more on the Lake Wobegon Effect, see here.

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Re: EK's comments, better quality of students is not a factor because most law schools grade on a curve. The grade inflation is the result of the curve shifting to the right, not better students.

Posted by: M2 | Mar 3, 2009 8:46:18 AM

this just doesn't seem right to me... 87% get a 3.00 or higher? At my school 50% graduate with a 2.99 or below. Great...

Posted by: student | Mar 3, 2009 8:36:43 AM

An issue caused by this are law schools (like mine) that adopt strict policies to avoid grade inflation (strict curves that suppress grades). As a result students from schools w/o grade inflation are at a disadvantage when competing for jobs.

Posted by: LawStudent | Mar 3, 2009 7:17:18 AM

Grade inflation has certainly occurred. However, there are a greater variety of students applying today than in 1950; law schools choose freely from both genders now, and more truly qualified students is a natural result of having a broader pool of potential students from whom to choose. And as another poster noted, the meteoric rise in law school tuition in the last decade or so has surely acted as a disincentive for many, many potential students -- likely, marginal ones who are not really sure they want to or can commit to law. That would contribute to a better student pool as well, and therefore, better grades. Simply posting the grade changes does not take any of this into account, and so the picture of grade inflation is skewed.

Posted by: JL | Mar 3, 2009 6:40:12 AM

EK makes a great point. There is a huge jump between the 60's and 70's for that top tier. What has happened is that the middle tier (so to speak) has really expanded resulting in everyone being above average (assuming a B is average). The problem, of course, is that the grades from such schools are next to useless in distinguishing between graduates and for evaluating between schools. We all know that all law students are above average, compared to the whole population of students, but not all law students, when compared to other law students, are above average. I think the end result will be an increase in "cronyism", as it were, given that I can't tell who really shines at a school I know little about, I'll go with the students from schools that I do know.

Posted by: LawHoo | Mar 3, 2009 6:02:53 AM

EK, your reasoning appears to assume that the GPA scale in law school is an absolute one, i.e. that if all of the students are good enough, they can all get a 4.0. But law school GPAs are always curved. In other words, the chart should already distinguish grade inflation from increased competition resulting in more qualified students attending.

The chart is showing that the curve, if it is not being adjusted upwards, is alternatively being adjusted so that it is flatter. The result is that the student who may only have gotten a 2.5 in the 1950s is getting a 3.0 now.

Posted by: asgasg | Mar 3, 2009 5:54:05 AM

In 1993 Michigan has a median LSAT of 167, Now the first quartile score is 167.

If you did have better students would it make sense to use the same curve?

Posted by: S | Mar 2, 2009 8:45:10 PM

You may be ignoring the rise in student quality. Law school admission is much more competitive now than it was in the 50's. LSAT scores are much higher, the number of applicants has skyrocketed while class sizes have not allowing schools to be more selective. There may be a number of other reasons but it seems unfair to label this grade inflation without first looking at the context and factors that may justify the rise in grading.

Posted by: Ryan Martin | Mar 2, 2009 8:38:09 PM

Your reference to Lake Wobegon in the last paragraph is spelled incorrectly.

Posted by: M | Mar 2, 2009 2:44:21 PM

I don't think the type of people who go to law school today are the type that would spend an enormous amount of money to fail. The chart is not relevant unless it can distinguish grade inflation from increased competition resulting in more qualified students attending. Note that 3.5 has been relatively stable since 1970.

Posted by: EK | Mar 2, 2009 2:31:30 PM