Grade inflation in higher education is a much-talked-about problem. Having been in academe for 13 years as an instructor and now as an administrator, I have heard nearly all my past and present colleagues, as well as many of the instructors who teach at my institution, complain about it. Most (dare I say all?) of those with whom I have had this conversation swear they don’t give undeserved grades. Yet the phenomenon persists. Where is the disconnect? Someone is doing it.
That’s a problem, both for students and for higher education in general. As Clifford Edwards, a professor of teacher education at Brigham Young University, points out, grade inflation “misleads students into believing they are better prepared for the world of work than they really are.” In addition, it has been argued that by inflating grades, we are failing to teach students what it means to succeed, which erodes their self-esteem. And if A’s are so easily obtainable, what does it say about the standards of the colleges dispensing them or the value of the degrees being conferred?
A 2004 study found that 56 percent of faculty members who were interviewed were convinced that grade inflation existed at their institution. But they were equally convinced that it was not happening in their departments or their courses. In fact, 92 percent of the interviewed professors believed that the grades they handed out were lower, on average, than they actually were. The researchers, Janice McCabe and Brian Powell, suggested that this skewed perception may indicate that “individuals believe they are better than average, and that their situation is distinct from others.”
McCabe and Powell may be on to something. Perhaps we instructors genuinely believe that others perpetrate grade inflation while we do not. Or maybe another psychological explanation can account for the disconnect.
For example, research by the law professors Ralph Banks and Richard Ford suggests not that we are more biased than we realize, but that we are more biased than we want to let on. This would imply that most of us know—on some subconscious level—that we inflate grades but do not wish to have this known by our peers.
Another possible explanation comes from the work of the biologist Robert Trivers, who argues that we deceive ourselves because doing so makes it easier to deceive others; believing the lie ourselves relieves us of the cognitive burden of trying to hide the nonverbal cues that we are lying. This suggests that we deceive even ourselves about our engaging in grade inflation.
One final examination of the psychological aspect comes from the psychologists Noah Goldstein and Robert Cialdini, who hypothesize that “people sometimes infer their own attributes by observing the freely chosen actions of others with whom they feel a sense of merged identity.” That suggests that when we hear other instructors talk about not inflating grades, we infer that because they are like us, we aren’t guilty of it either.
Of course, there may be a simpler and more practical explanation: As instructors we are expected to apply rigorous academic standards and yet emerge with high marks on student evaluations—which many instructors believe are tied to good grades. This presents a dilemma: How can instructors meet both expectations? One solution becomes clear: We can inflate grades, making students happy, while claiming we do not.
There is a final compelling explanation for why instructors lament grade inflation and yet engage in it themselves, one that bridges the gap between the psychological and the practical. This disconnect could be viewed, simply, as a failure to practice what we preach. The philosophy professor Saul Smilansky says there is one specific hypocritical position, which he calls “I’ll do so only if others join.” That is, people often espouse certain principles but are willing to abide by them only if others do, too. Could it be that many instructors would stop inflating grades if only someone else would do it first? Probably.
So, who should go first? We all should. As members of the academic community, we must be willing to look inward and ask ourselves why we walk into the classroom every week. If it is because we are passionate about our subjects and about passing on our passion and knowledge to our students, then we must accept personal responsibility to do what is right for our students, not to mention our respective fields.
To approach the issue of grade inflation with the assumption that “this is simply the nature of academe, so why fight the system?” is to abdicate our responsibility and deny our part in the very hypocrisy that Smilansky points to.
But to commit to ourselves, “I will not inflate grades. My students will receive the grades they earn,” would gain students’ respect (if, perhaps, with some moaning and groaning) as well as teach them to respect themselves for working to achieve their goals.
If every instructor would accept this measure of personal responsibility to refuse to inflate grades, then the grade-inflation problem would ultimately solve itself.
Allison Friederichs is assistant director of Columbia College-Denver, and an instructor of communications courses at the University of Denver’s University College.