Monday, January 2, 2023

'Is Harvard turning into a huge joke?' Grade inflation is a product of laziness

 Brad Polumbo recently posted an essay in the Washington Examiner titled "Is Harvard turning into a huge joke?" Polumbo focused on rampant grade inflation at the dowdy old school, where the average GPA for undergraduates is 3.8 out of 4.0. In other words, most Harvard students get As on their report cards.

In fact, grade inflation is so bad that Harvard abolished its Dean's List because most students were on it.  And this is not a new phenomenon. In 2001, more than twenty years ago, 91 percent of Harvard students graduated with Latin honors (summa, magna, or cum laude). Since then, the university has tightened its standards for an honors degree, but it still awards Latin honors to 50 percent of its graduates. 

As Polumbo points out, Harvard's grading system essentially gives students participation awards--turning America's most famous university into "glorified academic daycare."

Of course, Harvard is not the only university that has succumbed to grade inflation. I worked at four public universities before I retired, and I am confident that 95 percent of graduate students in the field of education received an A or B grade.  

Polumbo suggested that economics may explain the decline of rigorous grading. Colleges are desperate to enroll and retain students because they need the tuition revenue. They will do almost anything to keep their students happy.

However, that theory doesn't explain grade inflation at Harvard. Harvard College has a highly selective admissions process; it only admits about 4 percent of all applicants.  Harvard administrators are not worried about attracting and retaining students.

Grade inflation at Harvard and colleges across the country can best be explained by an age-old human weakness--sloth. 

 Grading a stack of student essays takes a lot of work. It is difficult to determine which students turned in superior work that deserves an A. It is even more challenging to establish which students submitted above-average work worthy of a B or a B+ but not an A-.

And it is excruciatingly onerous to hand out C grades for mediocre exams and then articulate an objective justification for that grade to a disappointed and angry student who might slap a professor with a grade appeal to the Dean.

It is much easier to distribute A grades to everyone, much like tossing out beads and baubles from a Mardis Gras float.

Of course, there is a price to be paid for grade inflation. Exceptionally bright students lose their enthusiasm for learning when they realize they will get the same grade whether or not they push themselves to excel.

Likewise, lazy students soon figure out that they will probably get a high grade even if they turn in shoddy work.  

Moreover, the value of a college degree is eroded by grade inflation. If the universities do not insist on rigor, how can they justify their exorbitant tuition prices? 

More ominously, once university culture is dominated by mediocrity, that ethos will seep into American society as a whole. Young people who slouch their way through college will be programmed to slouch their way through life.

Everybody gets an A!
Photo credit: KPEL


  1. I certainly agree that developing and maintaining a grading system that is discerning and differentiates student success is hard work.
    But there is more going on here, especially when considering grade inflation at regional public universities, that is, NOT at Harvard.
    Undergraduate grade inflation is part of credentialism -- the rule of credentials in apportioning success and failure -- because instructors don't want to be blamed if their students aren't accepted into the grad school or professional school of their choice. What we have here is another instance of "kicking the can down the road," this time in terms of liberal arts students going on to advanced degrees. The incentive for professors is to stay out of the line of fire, and to avoid assigning grades that generate angry phone calls from irate parents and students. The attitude is, "Let the next guy point out what this student lacks, not me." And in a credentialist society, who can blame them?

  2. You are absolutely right. I have edited the written work of doctoral students who did not know the basic rules of grammar and punctuation, yet they had undergraduate and master's degrees.

  3. A college degree was worth a million dollars. So we slammed more and more people into college. Some people weren't qualified to be there, but they needed a degree, and a degree was worth a million dollars. The coursework was too difficult for the unqualified, so it was watered down. If students flunk, they won't get their degree, and a degree is worth a million dollars. The easy courses produce lots of A's, which is good for retention, so administrators loved them, and funded more of them. The typical college graduate can't read like a college graduate, and many have no job skills Now a college degree is a worthless participation trophy, but it's a very import worthless participation trophy, because a college degree was worth a million dollars....