UF students are smarter than UCF students…

OK, so that’s a shameless, attention seeking title that’s not exactly true.  What is true is that the median Grade Point Average (GPA) is higher at the University of Florida (UF) than it is at the University of Central Florida (UCF).  This GPA differential is indicative of a greater rate of grade inflation – not greater student intelligence or achievement.

In 1989 the average GPA at UF was 2.88 but by 2007 it had risen to 3.3, an increase of 14.5%.  Down the road a bit at the UCF the 1989 GPA average was 2.76 increasing to 2.99 in 2007, an increase of only 8.3%.

Both of these increases are consistent with increases seen at institutions throughout the United States reflecting a trend that is reminiscent of Lake Wobegon (1) where “all the children are above average.”  Although grade inflation is unequivocally a national trend comparing two major universities in Florida illustrates the significance of the issue.

The disparity between the two GPA medians becomes problematic when trying to compare GPAs between the two institutions and it could be argued that a direct comparison is invalid.  Apologies to all my Gator friends, but a 3.5 GPA at UCF may very well indicate a higher level of achievement than a 3.5 at UF.  It’s simple arithmetic.  A 3.5 at UF is 6% above the institution average of 3.3 while at UCF a 3.5 is 17% above the 2.99 institution average GPA.

Charting the annual, average GPA from 1989 to 2007 shows steady grade inflation at both institutions with UF grades increasing at twice the rate at UCF.

The average GPA at UF has increased at twice the rate of increase at UCF.

Comparing GPAs of individual students attending institutions having disparate institutional GPA averages is problematic. One way we can attempt to assign meaning to individual GPAs is to compare them to the average GPA at the institution.  For example, a student having a GPA of 3.5 at an institution where the average GPA is 3.0 might be viewed as achieving at a higher level than a student with the same 3.5 GPA at an institution where the average GPA is 3.7.  In our UF -UCF example, a student at UCF with a 3.5 GPA is 17 % above the average institution average of 2.99.  At UF a student with a GPA 17% above the UF institution average of 3.3 would have a 3.86 GPA.

For decades grade inflation has been rampant and has remained unchecked to the point that GPA as an indicator of student performance has become less and less relevant.  It was only recently that I became aware of the problem and its scope which extends well beyond the regional example of UF and UCF.

Grade inflation is an endemic problem

Grade inflation is certainly not limited to UF and UCF but is a systemic problem in the university system. Stuart Rojstaczer has compiled a definitive site on grade inflation at http://www.gradeinflation.com.  Rojstaczer created the following graphs from historical records from over 80 schools. The methods for generating the graph are available in the paper located at http://www.gradeinflation.com/tcr2010grading.pdf. I would refer you to the original publication for a  full discussion of the data, analysis and conclusions.  It is sufficient for this posting to observe that grade inflation is a wide spread phenomenon with serious implications for current students and the higher education system as a whole.

Grade inflation varies aming institutions. (http://www.gradeinflation.com)

Coping strategies for runaway grade inflation

Grade inflation is a widely recognized problem and some institutions have put in place programs to try to make grades more relevant.

Cornell University publishes the median grade for all courses allowing comparison of individual grades to the median.  Cornell also includes median grades on transcripts with their grade policy stating “Transcripts and grade reports for undergraduate students shall indicate, along with the grade earned, the median grade given in the course and the course enrollment.” (2)

Under the Cornell system it would be seen that a student receiving an A in a course where the median grade was a C performed well.  In contrast, a student receiving an A in a course where the median grade was an A really did not distinguish themselves on the grading scale.  A quick scan of one of the Cornell median grade reports is enlightening in itself. (3) The predominant median grade is an A!

Cornell publishes the median grade for every course allowing comparison to individual grades. (http://registrar.sas.cornell.edu/Grades/MedianGradeSP10.pdf)

Princeton University has adopted a grading policy that states that undergraduate classes should have no more than 35% As. (4) This tough policy has been effective and Princeton is seeing a period of grade deflation.  A side effect of the grading policy is that Princeton grads are perceived by some to be at a disadvantage when being compared to schools that have no such policy.

To help defuse that issue Princeton has drafted a letter that can be sent to prospective employers explaining the policy and its rationale. In part the letter states the following:  “Commentators in the public press have singled Princeton out for taking effective leadership in combating pervasive grade inflation. Meanwhile, our closest peer institutions report that grades continue to rise, with A’s representing well over 50 percent of grades awarded for undergraduate work. Uncontrolled grade inflation devalues student achievement and undermines the reliability of grade point averages as a standard comparative metric. At its worst, it may discourage students from doing their best possible work.” (5,6)

Historical comparisons of GPAs is invalid

There is also the issue of attempting to compare grades at the same institution at different time intervals.  Using the UF data, a 2007 Gator grad with a GPA of 3.95 would be viewed as having an outstanding GPA.  However, when adjusted for grade inflation, the 3.95 would be equivalent to a 3.3 in 1989.

All of this leads me to de-emphasize the significance of GPAs at today’s  universities.  The credibility of the GPA as an indicator of achievement has been eroded by decades of grade inflation.  The phenomenon is not new and is certainly not limited to UF and UCF.  Much has been written on the subject and an excellent starting point for understanding the scope of the problem is the work by Rojstaczer and others.

Root cause of grade inflation

There is no single, root cause for grade inflation, but it could be that consumerism (7,8) and marketization of higher education are primary contributors to the problem.  There is evidence of a paradigm shift at colleges and universities in the 1970s where higher education became a commodity that was marketable. Unfortunately the message that proved effective at maintaining enrollment targets was not the quality of the education but the peripheral plush at the institution.  Non education based perquisites such as food courts, up-scale housing or extensive recreational facilities were found to be effective factors in influencing students choice of which college to attend.  Concurrently with the marketing of the universities as a commodities, students gained new influence by completing course and instructor satisfaction surveys.  This put pressure on instructors to achieve good evaluations not by offering a rigorous curriculum but by not upsetting the customer-student.  Nothing ensured a positive evaluation like an easy A.  Inflated grades were inevitable in this scenario.

In the end we all lose because students can increasingly achieve good grades with less and less work.  Do they receive a diluted university experience at the same time having the perception that that are high achievers?  It is small wonder that our university graduates do not fare well on the competitive international academic stage.  Yes, education would benefit from increased funding but equally important we should to look in the mirror and see that at the university level a real problem is the lowering of expectations of student performance based on consumerism and marketization drivers.

As in most of my postings I am approaching this subject as anything but an authority but as someone who has observed the effect of consumerism, marketization and grade inflation and only recently has discovered there is an extensive body of research and related discussion that properly defines and addresses the issue.  I am both encouraged and discouraged that it is so.

(1) http://prairiehome.publicradio.org/
(2) http://registrar.sas.cornell.edu/Student/mediangrades.html
(3) http://registrar.sas.cornell.edu/Grades/MedianGradeSP10.pdf
(4) http://www.princeton.edu/odoc/faculty/grading/faq/
(5) http://www.princeton.edu/career/undergrads/resumes/grading-policy-letter/
(6) http://www.princeton.edu/career/undergrads/resumes/grading-policy-letter/gradingpolicyletter.pdf
(7) Crage, Suzanna. and Fairchild, Emily.
“Student Consumerist Attitudes toward Higher Education”
Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, TBA, New York, New York City, Aug 11, 2007
(8)  Potts, Michael
“The consumerist subversion of education,”
Academic Questions
Volume 18, Number 3, 54-64, DOI: 10.1007/s12129-005-1018-9

Click to access fulltext.pdf

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