What is Grade Inflation? Which Colleges Practice This?

You want to earn good grades in college. In part, these are what help you land a great first job after college. They can also lead to other achievements: admission to graduate school, honors and awards, and more.

 

But if you attend a college with grade inflation, that 4.0 may not feel like as much of an accomplishment is it would be if you attended a school that wasn’t known to inflate grades. Sure, you may get some satisfaction out of having plenty of A’s on your transcript, but what if everyone else is getting A’s, too? Will employers and graduate schools know?

 

What is Grade Inflation?

 

Schools with grade inflation routinely award high grades to many students, while few students receive C’s, D’s, or F’s. The designation doesn’t speak to student performance so much as it speaks to the college’s policies. Schools want students to graduate and land good jobs or go onto graduate school — this reflects well on them — so grade inflation is sometimes standard practice.

 

Grade deflation, in contrast, means that it’s very difficult to earn an A or B, and students routinely receive C’s D’s, or F’s. Meanwhile, what might be considered A or B work at another school is not awarded high grades at a school with grade deflation. 

 

Which Colleges Have Grade Inflation?

 

Many top-tier colleges and universities are accused of grade inflation. Most members of the Ivy League are notorious for it. Keep in mind that most colleges don’t release GPA data, so the evidence is largely anecdotal.

 

A high average GPA is often the biggest indicator of grade inflation. In a survey of the Harvard class of 2016, respondents had an average reported GPA of 3.65 — nearly equivalent to an A-. Only 11 percent of seniors that year reported a GPA lower than a B+ average.

 

Yale is also often accused of grade inflation. According to a Yale Daily News survey, 92 percent of faculty who responded said they believe the university has grade inflation. The corresponding article stated that the cum laude cutoff for the class of 2017 was a 3.80, which indicated that 30 percent of students graduated with this or a higher GPA.

 

Similarly, top liberal arts colleges often have grade inflation. Earlier this year, Williams College faculty voted to begin weighting an A+ as a 4.33 instead of a 4.00. As part of the motion, it was revealed that an A+ had been awarded 212 times in the 2009-2010 academic year, while it was awarded 426 times in the 2018-2019 academic year, suggesting that grades had seen an uptick in the past decade. It’s also worth mentioning that most colleges, including top-tier ones, do not distinguish between an A and an A+ when it comes to GPA weighting (4.0 is used for both).

 

However, even if colleges do have general grade inflation, many STEM majors experience grade deflation, at least in comparison to their peers in other majors. This is because courses for these majors are often meant to “weed-out” those unprepared for medicine and similarly high-stakes careers.

 

(This is not true across the board, however; according to the above survey, in Harvard’s class of 2016, social science majors had the lowest average GPA — 3.62 — while students in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences had an average GPA of 3.64 and those concentrating in the Sciences had an average of a 3.70.)

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Is Grade Inflation Good or Bad?

 

While a high GPA may seem like a nice thing to have, you certainly shouldn’t seek out a school just because it has grade inflation. Instead, consider other aspects of fit with the college, like school size, diversity, location, academics, and extracurriculars.

 

You may, however, want to avoid schools with substantial grade deflation, if you’re not academically confident. You may also want to be careful if you’re planning to apply to grad school.

 

That said, bear in mind that graduate schools know different colleges’ reputations in terms of grade inflation and grade deflation, and they’ll take this into account when considering your application. Like with undergraduate admissions, they’ll evaluate your GPA in the context of your school.

 

Grade inflation shouldn’t play a huge role in your decision to attend (or not attend) a college, but other factors, such as the programs it offers and its academic rigor, should. With CollegeVine’s Chancing Engine, you can find out your odds of admission to hundreds of colleges in the US. We’ll also help you navigate the admissions process and find your fit. Sign up for your free CollegeVine account to get started!

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Laura Berlinsky-Schine
Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Short bio
Laura Berlinsky-Schine is a graduate of Johns Hopkins University, where she majored in Creative Writing and minored in History. She lives in Brooklyn, New York and works as a freelance writer specializing in education. She dreams of having a dog.