In 1950 a typical Harvard student’s grade was lower than a B+. By 2007 more than half of Harvard’s grades were in the A range.
You can see (below) that the college grade trajectory has been straight up:
The Increase in A Grades at Four-Year Colleges and Universities (1940-2013)
The Cornell Experiment
As grade inflation accelerated during the 1990s, the Cornell Faculty Senate decided to experiment with transparency. Mandating the publication of median grades for every course, they wanted everyone to know whether an “A” was meaningful. The goal was to encourage enrollment in courses with tougher graders by more accurately recognizing performance.
It did not quite work out that way.
More students signed up for the courses offering easier A’s. Researchers did note that lower ability students rather than those who were more able tended to enroll in the easy grade courses. But the high ability students unknowingly created a problem for themselves. They wound up in classes with strict graders, more able students and more competition. Consequently, the high ability student’s transcript looked better in those easy grading classes with students of lesser ability.
Because transparency had created perverse incentives, in May 2009, the Cornell Faculty Senate abandoned their experiment.
Our Bottom Line: Grade Inflation
Like prices, grades convey information and incentives. Grades tell students their strengths and weaknesses. On a transcript, grades send a message to other schools, to financial aid officers and to job recruiters. As incentives, grades can boost or diminish effort.
However, when prices or grades inflate, they can lose their ability to convey information. Creating a bubble, the higher price or grade is filled with air rather than substance.
And with both, that bubble is really tough to pop.