Why Grade Inflation Hurts Social Mobility

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The friends of “disruption” in higher education typically cite grade inflation as proof that liberal education is substance-free. They are correct to assert, as Thomas Lindsay recently did on this site, that grade inflation is a real problem.  But the disrupters haven’t identified the real problem with grade inflation: It makes liberal education seem to be worth less than it really is.

Grade inflation, in my view, is a quite deliberate project of our most elite schools to secure the elitist advantage of their students from effective competition. Indeed, the center of grade inflation is the Ivy League.  As far as I can tell, the grade inflation is meant to protect the “brand” of the meritocrats earned by being admitted. To be sure, it’s not that the students at Harvard or Princeton don’t work hard.  It’s just that their efforts occur in a safe and secure environment.  They’re protected from real competition from excellent students at lesser schools.  Nobody is ever to say that an A at my Berry College is as good as an A or even A minus at Harvard.  So we professors in the sticks can’t really win by sustaining grading standards too different from those used by our most prestigious schools.

If grade inflation is used to undermine the case for the traditional approach to liberal education at non-elitist schools, the result will be to enhance even more the somewhat unearned competitive advantage of elite schools and their students. Elite schools have the resources to retain their “traditional” or “luxury cruise” approach to undergraduate education, with small classes, tenured professors, real books, lots of “engagement,” and all that.  Their “brands” are so solid and so resilient that they won’t have much trouble fending off the forces of disruption.

Disrupting most of American higher education will therefore stall social mobility, as those who are not considered “excellent” to begin with will have little chance of ever obtaining that rank. We see a similar trend in our high schools, where our elite schools are better than ever, but we’ve been willing to let most of them be only “good enough.”

So, from where I’m sitting, it’s a huge mistake to think that grade inflation is evidence that liberal education as found at most of our four-year colleges has become worthless.  It’s certainly not evidence that the job of professor of, say, literature or philosophy has become easier than ever.  The easy A, very often, is making ordinary professors work harder than ever to prove the worth of their students as literate and accomplished men and women of character.  In plenty of places, our professors continue to strive for students who are more than competent, because they know their students well enough to see that they’re much more than “middle class.”  But they can’t give good and overachieving students Cs or even Bs in a world where all the elite kids are getting better grades no matter what they actually do.

Peter Augustine Lawler

Peter Augustine Lawler

Peter Augustine Lawler is Dana Professor in the Department of Government and International Studies at Berry College.

5 thoughts on “Why Grade Inflation Hurts Social Mobility

  1. The primary reason for going to schools such as Harvard is to buy a credential. Why not buy an A? Harvard has already used tests to admit the smartest and most determined students. Why should half of them get C’s because they are competing within an elite group?
    Grades given by a school to its students are at best a crude way for the school to say how the student is doing, how well (s)he is learning. These grades can’t be of much use to other schools or to businesses because they don’t know what was taught and what was learned.
    Let the next institution or business give whatever tests or make whatever evaluations it needs to make its decision. Maybe everyone at Harvard is already A level. Maybe everyone at Podunk is C level. Let the next employer or school decide.
    College is an expensive IQ test
    ( http://easyopinions.blogspot.com/2008/07/college-is-expensive-iq-test.html )
    The law says that a company cannot give an employment test unless it has been shown to be non-discriminatory in effect, that it doesn’t screen out people of color at a different rate than people of pallor.
    So, employers don’t create their own tests or use standardized tests. Companies rely heavily on college degrees to give them some little information about the quality of candidates. Interviewers talk randomly about whatever they want, using personal judgment to decide if the candidate is “a good match”. This is supposed to be less discriminatory!
    Schools are conveniently exempt from testing restrictions because they are supposedly altruistic and not connected to the filthy pursuit of money. So, they administer tests to determine who gets in and what grades they receive. I think that most of the excellence claimed by the top schools is actually selected up front by taking the students who test best out of high school. They have no magic “excellence” which can accept a poorly testing student and produce a great testing one.
    EasyOpinions.blogspot.com

  2. The solution here is pretty obvious, and I think more employers (especially in the legal area) go this way. Don’t rely on GPAs. Rely on class rank. The class rank is a statistic that really can’t be inflated.

  3. Yes, therefore put the mean class grade on each transcript. That will even the playing field as not other device can. I recommend this at my university at all appropriate and inappropriate occasions.

  4. Grade inflation also impedes social mobility by erasing the impecunious genius’s advantage over his wealthier but dimmer peers. When you give the same “A” to the amiable John Aldrich IV and to the brilliant Kim Joon-Hee, you have robbed Mr Kim of his only asset: intellectual superiority.

  5. The solution to this problem is simple. The students grade should be given as A- (B+) where the parenthetical figure is the class median. In that way, interested observers will have a touchstone against which to measure the student’s relative performance. It will then become clear at a grade of A- (A) is sub par.

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