Grade inflation: Ballooning out of control?

By Brad Polumbo


In 1973, the average GPA of students at four-year colleges was 2.9, and only 30 percent of grades given out were A’s. In this era, many hard-working students still only managed to get B’s, or even C’s. But in 1983, a phenomenon known as the era of “Students as Consumers” began. As the cost of college began to increase, students felt the higher price they were paying entitled them to higher grades. Colleges began to feel more pressure to distribute higher grades in order to attract and satisfy their student customers, thus beginning the practice of grade inflation.

By 2013, the average GPA at four-year colleges was a 3.15 and A’s were the most popular grade given out. In an interesting twist, the average GPA at private colleges in 2013 was a 3.35. From this data emerges a clear concept; as students pay more for college, they expect and receive higher, artificially inflated grades. While this may seem straightforward, it poses a dangerous problem. After all, aren’t grades supposed to be awarded based on merit not entitlement?

Inflating grades initially sounds like a win-win. In an ideal world, everybody could get A’s and be happy. But the reality is that grade inflation poses several obvious and impractical challenges to modern day college graduates. When everybody gets an A, or at least a higher GPA than they deserve, it devalues GPA as a benchmark of learning and achievement. The result? A higher emphasis on non-objective criteria when applying for graduate school and jobs.

Graduating from institutions with grade inflation, the high GPA you spent hours to achieve will no longer be enough to secure you admission to law school, medical school or even land you a job interview because other people who didn’t deserve higher grades got them anyway. Instead, more weight will be given to your standardized test scores (the fairness of which are controversially debated) or personality and less weight to your academic accomplishments. But beyond the practical, there is a more nuanced argument against grade inflation, the argument that despite the current trends of society, not every kid deserves a trophy.

People have long characterized millennials in the workplace as lazy, entitled, sullen, disinterested and worse. In fact, according to a CBS study, 46 percent of Chief Financial Officers at major corporations said that millennials have “an attitude of entitlement” and more than half of CFOs said that millennials made less loyal employees. With this in mind, is it any surprise that CNBC reported millennials make up over 40 percent of the unemployed, and that there are 4.6 million young Americans out of work?

I’m certainly not arguing that there’s something about millennials that just naturally makes them worse. Instead, I point you to grade inflation and a general culture of placation that plagues the lives of our nation’s young people today. How can we expect millennials to do well in the workplace when in the past they weren’t judged on their own merits? When they didn’t have to work as hard to achieve in school? Can we really be surprised by this generation’s attitude of entitlement when they’ve lived their lives going from participation trophies in Little League to A’s being handed out like candy in college?

Millennials are just as capable as any other generation, but with practices like grade inflation that coddle us, not only are we left unprepared for the real world that awaits us after graduation, we are belittled. Millennials are smart, ambitious and tech-savvy, and we deserve to be judged on our own merits.

Bradley Polumbo is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]