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On Grade Inflation

This is about my least favorite time of the year, mostly because it's hard to go anywhere on a university campus without being around some of the most anxious individuals alive. People become obsessed with grades, some willing to go to great lengths to avoid the grade that probably reflects the level of work they've put into the course over the past few months.

(from flickr user ccarlstead)

It's generally accepted that grade inflation exists. A distribution of GPAs at many colleges in America would be highly skewed and probably wouldn't look much like a normal distribution. To an extent that's the result of the fact that students who do poorly are more likely to drop out and students who do well are likely to remain. But even controlling for that, I think its reasonable to say that the typical GPA today is higher than it was a generation ago.

There's a second type of grade inflation that I think has significant implications. Earlier this year I wrote a post called Good School, Bad Teacher, questioning whether someone is better off at a "good" school with bad teachers or vice-versa. I thought of this again while overhearing two classmates in a computer lab discussing their schedules for next semester. For these two, a primary consideration for course selection was whether a course was considered "easy or hard" and whether the person teaching it was likely to hand out mostly high grades.

It's possible, of course, to self-select courses and professors that will yield the highest grades, even if you don't take much away from the courses. I'm taking an economics course right now that only has ten people in it. It's valuable, but very challenging; and since it's not a required course for graduation, even in the economics department, there isn't much demand for it. Nevertheless, I'm undoubtedly better off for having take nit.

So the question is: who's better off?.. someone who takes valuable but challenging courses and professors and learns a lot, even at the cost of potentially lower GPA? or someone who self-selects cupcake courses and "easy" professors and graduates with higher grade points?


It almost happens more in graduate school because people are that much more indebted to the institution. When push comes to shove, grades inflated or not will not mean anything. The true barometer becomes how much value do you give your clients/patients/customers for their time and/or money.
Rob, a related issue (and you have to wonder whether picking 'easy' profs is related) is that males get worse grades than females, no matter what. While males test at the same level as females, they get worse grades. No wonder guys get nervous and look for easy profs. See for why males get worse grades than females.
Wendy said…
Depends upon your needs. If you just need the good grades to get into something like Law School, then selecting easier courses is probably a good choice.

But, if you're looking to move on into the workplace after this round of education, taking on the more challenging courses will teach you many more valuable skills than taking the easy route.

Long term, it will pay off.
austin said…
what i am doing my next four years are 40% determined by my gpa, and i am competing against people at less academically rigorous schools in less academically rigorous disciplines, so it makes sense for me to choose easy classes.

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