Paul L. Caron

Friday, July 15, 2011

43% of College Grades Are A's

Inside Higher Ed, Easy A:

Two critics of grade inflation have published a new analysis finding that the most common grade at four-year colleges and universities is the A (43% of all grades) -- and that Ds and Fs are few and far between. [Where A Is Ordinary: The Evolution of American College and University Grading, 1940–2009, by Stuart Rojstaczer (Duke) & Christopher Healy (Furman).]

Further, by comparing historical data to contemporary figures, the authors charge that there has been an increase of 28 percentage points since 1960 and 12 percentage points since 1988 in the percentage of As awarded in higher education. The study was published Wednesday [and collects] historical data from 200 four-year colleges and universities and contemporary data from 135.

Grade Distribution by Sector and Region

Sector/Region Average SAT % As % Bs %Cs % Ds % Fs
By sector            
Private, nonprofit university 1245 48.2 35.8 11.4 2.2 2.3
Private, nonprofit college 1192 47.7 36.6 11.3 2.4 1.9
Public flagship university 1172 42.3 34.5 15.5 4.1 3.6
Public satellite university 1056 41.7 32.0 16.0 4.8 5.4
Public commuter university 1017 39.0 31.8 17.5 5.4 6.3
By region            
Midwest 1135 45.0 34.0 14.0 3.7 3.3
Northeast 1153 45.1 35.7 13.0 3.1 3.1
West 1079 44.6 33.0 14.4 3.7 4.2
South 1102 39.7 33.1 16.7 5.1 5.4
Total 1115 43.0 33.8 14.9 4.1 4.2

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I remember in graduate school in the 80's the saying was
Pay the fee
Get a "B"
Show up every day
Get an "A"

If you got a C it was close to failing.
Things maybe haven't changed much but I believe undergraduate grading was a little harder then.

Posted by: Dave Munnell | Jul 18, 2011 5:58:00 AM

This doesn't surprise me at all, and it starts long before the students get to college.

Kids are expected to get A grades in primary and secondary school. An A is the standard, and anything less is to fall short of that standard. Kids are taught for 12 years that if they didn't get an A then they must have messed up in some way. That is how it was when I was a kid, and I'm almost 40 now. I can only imagine it is worse today.

Posted by: Lee Reynolds | Jul 16, 2011 10:20:54 PM

There must be a lot of cum laudes.

Posted by: Ken Mueller | Jul 16, 2011 9:16:16 PM

"Credentialed, not educated" part [lost count].

A friend of mine who moved from a [science] professorship in Europe to the US made the mistake of grading a large freshman class in what he thought was the fair way: seeing the grades were roughly a bell curve, he gave Cs to those with grades near the average, Bs to those between 0.5 and 1.5 std. devs. above average, and As 1.5 std. devs. and more above. You can imagine the outcry, and he had to tweak his grades. His chair was more accommodating than some: as a compromise he ended up giving about 25% As, Bs, and Cs each, with Fs reserved for those who didn't show up for exams or scored the "guess rate" on tests.

Also, despite not being a native English speaker, he was surprised and appalled at the poor vocabulary and plentiful spelling and grammar mistakes of many of his allegedly "native speaker" charges.

"Quantitative easing" (a.k.a., printing money) in higher ed is what we are witnessing.

Posted by: New Class Traitor | Jul 16, 2011 8:49:25 PM

That is SOOOOO going on my door next to the office hours. I tell students %50 will get Cs, and I follow through. With this, I should have a wonderful drop the 2 nd week of class, and much less work the rest of the semester.

Posted by: Wondertrev | Jul 16, 2011 6:56:46 PM

Glad to see the little law school I recently completed doesn't follow the trend. Graduated last month either second or third in my class of 19 with a total of 3 A's out of 15 graded courses.

Posted by: GCA | Jul 16, 2011 4:12:56 PM

For teachers, giving out A's is like going on welfare or heating your house with a wood stove: it's great if you're the only one doing it, but once everyone starts doing it, the system falls apart.

Posted by: aloysius | Jul 16, 2011 4:06:11 PM

Hmmmmm. No wonder my students hate me.

Posted by: JorgXMxKiw | Jul 16, 2011 3:50:59 PM

Today's A is the new B.

Posted by: ignatzk | Jul 16, 2011 3:23:30 PM

Where I went to college the classes were graded on "the curve" and most of the grades were B's and C's. And this was not at some community college but at of the top engineering and arts & science universities in the United States at that time. The median grade of "the curve" was a C+/B- and the rest adjusted accordingly. "A"s were ONLY awarded for exceptional work. In our department and major, "A-" was the high-grade given...usually the top students got B+'s.

Because of that traditional grading-curve, the Registrar actually included a letter from the University President with your transcript stating that one-full-point should be added when comparing to most Colleges' grades.

Posted by: ted b | Jul 16, 2011 1:58:18 PM

I second Kyle's question about the distribution of grades across majors. When I was an undergrad at Yale (late 80s), I recall that the average grade on campus was approximately a high B+, but for my colleagues and me who took organic chemistry and physics instead of modernity studies and literary criticism, our science profs tended to grade on the curve, _defining_ the average grade as a C+. If the average of all grades on campus was a high B+, and the average grade for a hardcore science class was a C+, calculating the average grade of a History major is left as an exercise for the reader. Assuming that the reader knows how to calculate an average, of course. ;-)

Posted by: biff | Jul 16, 2011 1:47:17 PM

So, we either have really smart students, or really low standards. Considering the state of K-12 education, it would look like the latter to me.

Posted by: Boglee | Jul 16, 2011 1:16:16 PM

ErikZ is clearly an "A" student.

Posted by: Jason | Jul 16, 2011 12:45:20 PM

Glad to see more proof of the rotten game going on. Schools need As for two reasons: 1) funding tied to school "excellence," 2) parents NEVER complain or pester teachers if their kids are getting As, so to be able to carry on with the crap they've been doing, unmolested, teachers hand out As and no one comes by to question it. The classes and courses and exams and standardized testing are ALL gamed to massage the students' abilities to guess, and thus produce higher scores than what would be produced on exams that actually are meant to expose how well students have mastered their subjects. More proof: American students are FAILING international exams at every grade level that students in other countries routinely pass. Our educational establishment spends a lot of time and energy concocting excuses and spin for Americans to dismiss those inconvenient and alarming results.
The next proof is the numbers of A students who enter college, then discover they are unequipped to perform at university level. Drop out rates are horrendous now. The universities, in their greedy zeal to keep paying customers in and thus still paying into university coffers, are offering all sorts of fluff courses with easy As. D and F students can't qaulify for LOANS and grants and have to drop out, but A students stay in, LOANS stay, STATE FUNDING STAYS. All about education establishment GREED.

Posted by: wanumba | Jul 16, 2011 12:17:12 PM

A high level of A's most matters if school is primarily concerned with signaling and not with education. There of course is no reason that a highly motivated 43% of a class cannot master the materials. However, if instead of using grades for motivation and feedback we must use them to divide into average, above average and exceptional, and we insist on our schools making the distinction, then simple mastery does not matter. Do we really want schools making that distinction?

Posted by: Durendal | Jul 16, 2011 12:04:22 PM

Is a C at one school the same as a C at another?

Since a C is average, or meets expectations, couldn't a C at one school be better than a C at another?

The grades don't make sense for comparison purposes unless a standardized test exists across all schools.

It is clear that not everyone can be "above average"!

Posted by: Mike | Jul 16, 2011 11:42:14 AM

Two thoughts from my perspective as a prof. First, it's no doubt true that grade inflation is driven by the process of assessing profs using student evaluations, where how students "feel" about a prof becomes the measure of how good a teacher he or she may be (which is a factor then in tenure and promotion). All kinds of pressure then is exerted on the grader to give grades that please the graded party. Second, and more subtle, there is a kind of consumerist ethos that has infected higher ed (see ohwilleke's post above, for example) where the college is figured as a business and the student as a customer. The customer is always what? Right.

Posted by: charles | Jul 16, 2011 11:27:03 AM

I knew that evolution is believed to go through accelerated periods but these miraculous rates are downright creationist.

Posted by: DEEBEE | Jul 16, 2011 11:21:17 AM

I don't understand the problem.

If the students are learning all the material at an A level, then they should get As.

Posted by: ErikZ | Jul 16, 2011 11:16:22 AM

I would like to see the percent of A's given out based on major. I can see psychology/women's studies/history/most liberal arts majors getting a mostly A's. I, however, suspect that the science and math crowd don't receive an A 43% of the time.

Posted by: Kyle | Jul 16, 2011 11:15:09 AM

There has been significant grade inflation in Georgia colleges to help students maintain the required B averages for their lottery-funded Hope scholarships, so that they don't have to drop out of school for financial reasons.

Posted by: Woody | Jul 15, 2011 6:22:28 PM

As much as the students/parents are paying college, all of the grades should be As.

Posted by: bonzo | Jul 15, 2011 3:29:55 PM

It would be interesting to see how that translates into GPA distributions.

Posted by: ohwilleke | Jul 15, 2011 3:21:29 PM

Southern flagship universities: keeping it real baby.

Posted by: Matt | Jul 15, 2011 3:14:15 PM

Clearly people today are just more smart.

Posted by: anon | Jul 15, 2011 12:50:17 PM