The New Normal: The Problem of Grade Inflation in American Schools

A freshman walks into my writing tutor office hours last week visibly upset and nearing the point of tears. "I just don't understand," she says, "I didn't think I did a terrible job on my last paper, but I got a B+."

I couldn't help myself; I laughed a little. Expecting the student to admit that she received a C or D on the paper, I was a little shocked at her reaction to a B+. After patiently explaining to her that she now attends a prestigious university where a B+ is a good grade, I sat wondering if I can really be surprised at her behavior.

Currently, the most frequently awarded letter grade in American universities is an A (about 43 percent). According to the 2011 New York Times article, "A History of College Grade Inflation by Catherine Rampell, this number has risen steadily from about 30 percent in the past 20 years and appears likely to continue.

Even Wesleyan, a college not particularly known for its grade inflation, is not exempt from this nationwide trend. To make Wesleyan's Dean's List requires the equivalent of roughly a 3.835 GPA. Although it is certainly not the norm to make Dean's List, it is impressive that many students are able to do it at all considering the demanding workload. To recognize only such high grade point averages is to imply that other grades in the 3.0 (B) range are easy to attain. Does this mean that B's have replaced C's as the new average? If this is the case, what do A's mean?

I think I can speak for a lot of the overachievers of the world when I say that there's nothing better than getting that well deserved A. The validation of your capabilities and recognition of your effort elicits the greatest feeling of reward. After working hard for an A, however, it may seen slightly annoying when all your peers' papers, which should reflect different levels of effort and capabilities, receive very similar outstanding grade. Without poor grades, good or great grades mean very little.

Although grade inflation may boost the ego of the nation's university students, it does not have the best outcomes for the experience of learning itself. First of all, students will not apply themselves nearly as much when they know they are guaranteed a good grade. If we all were receiving great grades anyway, then why would we try hard in the first place?

In addition to this, small differentials in grade point averages make it very difficult for future employers and/or graduate programs to select candidates. This results in a larger emphasis on standardized tests, which most students hate and feel are not representative. However, we cannot complain about the unfairness of standardized testing, at any level, if it remains one of the only ways in which students can be statistically differentiated. By submitting to the culture of grade inflation, we empower the standardized test to 'accurately' represent us.

Many professors feel pressured to award good grades to receive positive recommendations for job security. Others just may not want to deal with having difficult conversations with upset students. Still others may sympathetically want to help students build their best transcript for an advantage in the job market. Little do they realize, the entire inflation culture may actually be hurting students in the long run. By providing guidelines for grade distribution in classes and by not punishing professors for more average/poorly performing students, schools can help alleviate this situation.

Grade inflation has become a serious issue nationwide. The new normal of grades detracts from the accomplishment of actually earning good grades and forces more expectations and stress on students outside of academics.