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The Eternal Inflation of the Spotless Grade

“College grades are rising steadily and perhaps at an accelerating rate on campuses across the country, although teachers and professors do not agree on the reasons.” This lede from a front-page New York Times article kicked-off a flurry of concern about liberal politics making professors afraid to give students low grades. While it may sound like something from from a Times piece about grade inflation that made the rounds recently, the line was actually published in that paper more than 50 years ago

It was this article, from March 13, 1972, that introduced the concept of “grade inflation.”  In it, reporter Iver Peterson credits the term to sociologist David Riesman, who likely coined the phrase during a background interview, as it was not a term Riesman had previously used. The article was reprinted in newspapers across the country, and “grade inflation” soon became a popular shorthand for all that was wrong with today’s young adults. Even Riesman started using the term in his own scholarship.

A largely overlooked part of Peterson’s reporting explored emerging doubts about the very value of grades. He explained that campuses were showing some moderate rise in total scores, citing a scholar who showed that on 435 campuses, overall undergraduate grade point averages rose from 2.4 in 1960 to 2.56 in 1969, and the rate of increase was accelerating. He also reported on divergences between SAT scores and overall grade point averages, as well as the creation of pass-fail grading systems on campuses across the country. University administrators cited in the piece suggested that students were simply doing better, but Riesman pointed to other factors, including shrinking class sizes, the rise of independent studies, and professors’ adoption of an “anti-elitist” ideology. Peterson concluded the piece with two different professors each expressing doubts about grading students harshly, suggesting that it created an excessively competitive campus culture.

Tucked within Peterson’s article was a tale of rebellion and aimless youth. Were students being rewarded by new campus rules meant to cater to their demands, and by professors too soft-hearted to give students the grades they deserved? “No question about it,” said a senior at the University of Wisconsin, who was the only student directly quoted. “I never go to school any more, and I still get wonderful grades. There's a common consensus here that it's a lot easier to get good grades.” 

It was this theme that stuck with other reporters, opinion writers, and pundits —particularly conservative ones. In August 1972, the Wall Street Journal published an editorial warning  of “liberal open-admissions policies…that cheapen the value of college education.” A New York Times editorial offered a more benign view, explaining that the “Gentleman’s C” of yore was given because it was assumed that “all gentlemen were alike,” and suggesting that the “Gentleman’s B” was now being awarded on the same basis. (The real question, as the editorial board saw it, was whether or not the mass of A students would do well on the job market.)

But the context for both analyses was clearly the rapid post-war expansion of higher education, into what UC president Clark Kerr once dubbed the “multiversity.” This expanded university opened access to swaths of students who otherwise would not have attended due to economic, racial, or gender barriers. 

Originally coined during a moment of wrenching change in the U.S. economy, the concept of “grade inflation” soon took on an eternal quality. It imagined a distant past in which diligent and hard-working students had the fortitude to take the harsh rebuke that came with lower grades. But then the Ivory Tower had fallen, sacked by its own good intentions and spoiled students, no longer able to reliably sort society. The scourge of permissiveness was originally blamed on 1960s culture, though subsequent reporting attributed it to more recent events. But whatever the cause, grading standards have been seeming to fall away, again and again, for more than 50 years. With each new pronouncement, institutions of higher education are seen to be losing the ability to measure merit objectively, producing new generations of ill-measured students. As the recent New York Times piece asked, “What does excellence mean at Yale, [students] wonder, if most students get the equivalent of ‘excellent’ in almost every class?”

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In November 1974, grade inflation returned to the journalistic spotlight, this time in a pair of Time Magazine features titled “Too Many A’s,” and “Bonehead English.” They focused, as most grade inflation stories do, on elite universities. At Yale, 42% of grades were reported to be A’s, with 46% of students graduating with honors. At Stanford, the likely inspiration for the piece, the student paper was reporting that the campus grade point average was 3.5, “or just under an A.” It quoted a student as saying, “I’ve worked hard to get good grades here, and I thought they would help when I was ready for grad school….Now I find out everybody has good grades.” The campus had recently dropped the D and F grades, too. Stanford Law School, meanwhile, was grappling with the reality that most of their applicants’ undergraduate grades were so high that only their essays were competitive. “We just live in a nonjudgmental society,” a Stanford professor was quoted as saying. The Time author was not impressed. “Today's graduates may be in for a rude shock when they discover that in the workaday world, not everyone can count on A’s.” 

In the mid-1970s, newspaper coverage of grade inflation was framed in economic terms. A 1975 Los Angeles Times piece shared the reflections of a University of Chicago professor. “She said the pressure from students is great. Nervous freshman, aiming for straight-A grades with an eye to eventual medical school entrance, ask to have grades changed, often very emotionally.”

For conservatives, grade inflation remained a useful way of blaming liberal culture for the problems that they claimed plagued the country. It was not that students “were getting brighter,” according to a December 1974 Wall Street Journal editorial. Rather, “student-oriented reforms in the late ‘60s” and the worsening economics of higher education in the 1970s incentivized raising grades to avoid losing money from students who did not want to take classes from tough graders. The authors argued that “scholarship required devotion to higher standards” — standards that would serve as essential life lessons in a competitive economy. In a March 1975 column, George Will called grade inflation “an affliction more ruinous than yesterday’s plague of idealistic arsonists.” As he saw it, “grade inflation produces a campus demiparadise of ‘egalitarian excellence,’ a wonderland in which most people are alike in being better than average.” Such students, oblivious to their own mediocrity, were doomed to fail in the face of life’s cruelty.

Fears that colleges were inflating the grades of undeserving and underprepared students continued throughout the 1990s and 2000s. The stakes for student success, meanwhile, seemed to be reaching new heights. Cold War-era public investment had made credentialed jobs in the technology sector more lucrative than ever, while changes to federal financial aid laws were entrapping ever-increasing numbers of students in debt. But conservatives still pointed the finger at school culture. “Mediocracy replaced meritocracy,” wrote Charles Murray and R. J. Herrnstein in a 1992 piece about declining SAT scores. “The A’s Have It as Grade Inflation Sweeps Colleges,” proclaimed a 1993 headline in the Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel. In 1998, New York Times columnist Brent Staples jumped into the culture war, linking inflated grades to a new sense of entitlement and writing that “addicted to counterfeit excellence, colleges, parents, and students are unlikely to give it up.” A few years later, the paper’s editorial board was back at it, explaining “why grade inflation is serious.” Harvard, the editorial announced, had become “a pioneer in grade inflation”; half of all undergraduate grades there were A or A-. The editorial board guessed that “fifty years ago, students probably gnashed their teeth about C’s but kept their mouths shut.”

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Two decades later, grade inflation remains a staple of the news media’s higher education coverage. Grading standards at American colleges and universities are still being reported on as a morality tale, where limited praise goes to the undeserving, and mediocrity fuels mass education. Journalists seem unaware of the history of this discourse, and so reinvent the story every few years by looking at trends at the same handful of elite schools. The rising grade point averages on these campuses are assumed to reflect an objective metric that’s been turned into a subjective tool for appeasing students either too anxious or ungrateful to appreciate the opportunities before them. This analysis obscures the many systemic problems currently plaguing higher education, such as student debt and the affordability crisis, instead holding out the easy solution of professors refusing to be soft on their students. 

The 50-year panic about grade inflation emerged out of the chaotic transformations of the 1960s, and it is about time to leave that framework behind as a relic of its era. Other problems await.