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A Guide to Grade Inflation and Deflation
If you’ve been researching colleges lately, you’ve probably seen these two terms often — “grade inflation” and “grade deflation.” They’re words that college students love to react to, whether it’s with celebration or with gritted teeth. So what do these words actually mean for you, the pre-college applicant? And how should this affect your college choices?
Well, as always — if you’ve got questions, we’ve got answers. Let’s go.
“Okay, so these words — what do they mean?”
Grade inflation and deflation both have to do with the way colleges like to hand out grades to their students. If you attend a grade-inflated college, this means that this college tends to hand out high grades to a lot of their students and that a plurality (or even a majority) of students are consistently making A’s or B’s in all of their classes. On the other hand, if you attend a grade-deflated college, this means that your college grades more harshly; a decent number of students at this college are making low C’s or failing their classes. The litmus test for a grade-inflated or grade-deflated college is their median GPA: if the median GPA of a college is in the A’s or B’s, it inflates its grades. If the median is in the failing range, it deflates.
But in recent years, the term “grade deflation” has evolved to mean “not as grade inflated” in some cases, so you’ll be hearing some people call a C-median “grade deflated” as well. For the rest of this article, we’ll use grade deflation in this sense since very few colleges actually actively grade deflate.
Grade inflation and deflation are not phenomena related to student performance as much as they are related to college grading policy. For instance, a few years back, Princeton had a rule where only the top 35% of students would be able to earn A’s (don’t worry, it’s not a thing anymore). This was an intentional move to deflate grades and make their classes more competitive — under this rule, even if a student managed to do A-quality work, they would still be awarded something lower if they were not in the top 35% of their class.
“Why do colleges do this? Can’t they just hand out grades normally?”
Well, not every college does things to intentionally shift their bell curve towards one end or the other. But for those who do, the reasons are quite diverse; there’s also been an ongoing dispute over whether one approach is better than the other. We won’t cover that here, but if you’re interested, a quick Google search should turn up some interesting results.
Speaking in very general terms, grade inflation decreases competition. It discourages college students from taking a cutthroat, aggressive attitude towards their peers and their academics, and lessens the incentive for academic dishonesty. It also encourages students to branch out of their specialized interests and explore new things — a French literature major would be way more likely to take the plunge into plant pathology if he knew that doing so wouldn’t tank his GPA.
Grade deflation, however, tends to increase competition. It incentivizes students to constantly perform and learn to the best of their ability, and also increases the rigor of courses at a college. This reputation for rigor means that good grades, honors, and other various distinctions from a college like this are more highly valued than the same things from a less rigorous college, both by potential employers and everybody else in the know. There’s always a certain prestige to snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.
“So, which colleges inflate their grades and how do I get in?”
Not so fast; it’s not that simple. As we’ll go over later, an inflated GPA isn’t always the best to have (yes, even though it may be ridiculously high), and inflation should definitely not be one of your top must-haves when considering a college.
But hey, we can tell you which colleges tend to inflate.
As a rule of thumb, the inflation model favors liberal arts colleges and colleges with strong liberal arts departments (there’s a difference). After all, the liberal arts are about exploration and freeing yourself and learning about anything you want, and it would just be cruel for an institution of the liberal arts to crush curiosity by dangling their students’ GPAs over their heads. In fact, liberal arts and humanities departments of most colleges tend to hand out relatively more inflated grades compared to the rest of their college.
Some of the most famous grade inflators are — you guessed it, the Ivies. Brown, one of the more notable examples, drops all of its students’ failed classes from their transcripts and also does not calculate GPAs. Harvard’s median grade, as reported by the Harvard Crimson in 2013, was an A-minus, with the most awarded grade being an A.
Conversely, colleges with strong engineering and STEM departments tend to favor deflation — or rather, a lack of inflation. Since success in STEM fields require an acute mastery of technical knowledge, the grade deflation model ensures that a college will produce a large number of skilled engineers and scientists, even if their grades are slightly subpar. Engineering and technical departments of most colleges tend to be grade deflated with respect to the rest of their college, and specific majors requiring a lot of STEM knowledge (premed, for instance) also tend to have lower median grades.
UC Berkeley, MIT, Harvey Mudd, and Caltech are just a handful of colleges who are relatively deflated. In a rare case of active deflation, there is a policy at UC Berkeley for some STEM classes that limits A’s to the top 15-20% of the class. To get freshmen accustomed to the academic intensity of their schools, freshmen at MIT and Harvey Mudd are only given pass-no pass grades their entire first year.
“Wait, inflation can be bad?”
Okay, no — not bad per se. But it can be detrimental if you just go to a college for the grade inflation over all other things. If you want to go all-in and bet on one thing to help your career prospects after college, it’s extremely wise to have that one thing not be your GPA.
Firstly, employers take your college’s specialties into consideration when trying to hire new people. If they’re looking for a software engineer, for instance, computer science graduates from schools like Stanford, UC Berkeley, or MIT will have an edge over other applicants simply because they come from colleges with strong computer science backgrounds. Most employers have been around long enough in their respective fields to know what schools produce the best hires, and they will calibrate their GPA expectations to match what is typical from these institutions.
Many universities also have policies to inform these employers about their students’ circumstances. For example, all of Cornell’s official transcripts go out with the median grade of each class printed next to your grade, so that employers can compare how you did in context with the university’s grading policies.
Also, if you’re worried about grad school, rest a little easier knowing that colleges want their undergrads to get into grad school too. As such, they usually reach out to grad schools to make sure the the grad school adcoms know about their specific grading policies — so even during their grade deflation period, the number of Princetonians that ended up getting into grad school was about the same after before grade deflation.
So to sum things up, it’s more important to pick a college which has strong programs for your specific interests or career fields over just a college that hands out high grades. Plus, a college with a strong program for a specific field will often also have many hands-on opportunities for experience in that field, which will also give you a significant edge over job applicants who’ve not yet had any real experience.