Starting during the Vietnam War, average grades at universities nationwide began to climb steadily, a trend that has not stopped since. At the time, professors were unwilling to give students low grades, as a poor GPA could jeopardize their military exemption status and result in their being sent to fight and possibly die overseas.
In 1930, the average GPA of undergraduate students at U.S. colleges was 2.40, according to a 2009 report released by the University Council on Teaching. In 1960, it was around 2.48, a modest increase of .08 over 30 years. In 2009, the last year the data was reported, the average GPA was roughly 3.25.
In 2004, 90.6 percent of Harvard University’s graduating class received Latin honors (cum laude, magna cum laude, and summa cum laude), an occurrence that sparked controversy and led to serious conversation on the topic of grade inflation among top-ranked universities nationwide.
The trend has been apparent across the country at both private and public universities, and Boston College is no exception. Donald Hafner, vice provost for undergraduate academic affairs, noted that grade inflation was a trend that had gained momentum and was difficult to stop once it began. In the College of Arts and Sciences as a whole, the percentage of As and A-minuses was 38 percent in 2000, according to the report. In 2008, As and A-minuses made up 45 percent of the grades.
David Quigley, dean of A&S, partially attributed this trend to the increasing quality of the average BC student.
Quigley pointed out that average GPAs have been increasing at close to an equal rate to incoming SAT scores and high school GPAs of students, but admitted that there have been problems recently.
“[Grade inflation] has clearly been one of the big issues of the last 10 years on all highly selective college campuses-certainly Boston College is no exception,” Quigley said. “I think in the last decade or so there are some areas where the grading curve, at the high end, the outliers have really drifted far away from a reasonable median, depending on department and discipline.”
Hafner didn’t necessarily agree that the upward trend in grades could be explained by an increasingly talented student body. “There has also been an argument that the average BC student is better academically prepared-I don’t find that persuasive,” he said. “If they arrived here better prepared, I would expect them to go farther.”
Either way, the compression of grades into mostly the range of As and Bs has made distinction between good work, very good work, and truly excellent work nearly impossible in some cases, both Quigley and Hafner said.
As a result of the steady increase in average GPAs, the 2009 report by the University Council on Teaching gave several recommendations for ways to combat grade inflation, which the University has begun to phase in over the past few years.
The Office of the Provost now provides department heads with an annual report, delivered at the end of the academic year, that summarizes grades by faculty member, by department, and by college, giving faculty members and department chairs the opportunity to compare their grading policies with those of the University as a whole.
“Over the last couple of years we’ve been using the departmental data reports, which are very useful materials, putting that out to chairs and encouraging [them] to share that information with their faculty, so that faculty can see not just how they’re grading, but how their grades correlate with the department, in the College of Arts and Sciences, and even across the University,” Quigley said.
Most grading policies are determined by individual departments, in consultation with the Dean’s Office and the Office of the Provost.
The biology, chemistry, and accounting departments all have standard target grades for their introductory level courses, which are often taught by several different professors simultaneously. According to Kathleen Dunn, assistant chair of the biology department, instructors for introductory biology classes aim for a B-minus average score. Similarly, Lynne O’Connell, director of the undergraduate chemistry labs in the chemistry department, said that the faculty who teach General Chemistry I and II aim for a B-minus average. Billy Soo, who has been chair of the accounting department for seven years, said that his department’s target average grade for introductory and major required classes is a B.
The standard target grade changes, however, in the case of more advanced classes and electives. Dunn pointed out that in some cases, a higher average grade in a class makes sense.
“We do get messages from the dean regularly reminding us to pay attention to grades, and that courses that have all As are suspect,” Dunn said. “In some cases it’s warranted-there are certain small classes, small discussion classes, certainly small lab classes, where it’s not unusual for the grades to be mostly As and A-minuses.”
Dunn said, however, that there was no overarching structure for the way grading works in higher-level biology classes. O’Connell said that the chemistry department works in a similar fashion, leaving grades in upper level classes mostly up to individual faculty members.
“The chemistry department does not have a ‘blanket’ policy about grades,” O’Connell said in an email. “Each faculty member is given the authority to assign grades in his/her course as s/he sees fit.”
Soo, on the other hand, maintained that his department keeps a target average score for upper level classes, but increases it from the B average recommended for introductory classes to a B-plus.
Although the economics department also has a large number of introductory courses with high enrollment, it does not have target grades for the many sections of Principles of Microeconomics and Principles of Macroeconomics.
“The economics department does not promulgate a grading standard that faculty are expected to adhere to,” said Donald Cox, chair of the economics department. “When I first started here 25 years ago, the median grade in economics was a B-minus. That is not true anymore.”
Housing both the core writing classes and core literature classes, the English department does not have separate criteria for grading core classes in comparison to upper level classes, as some of the sciences do.
“I encourage the faculty to have some sort of reasonable distribution, show them the English department data in relation to other departments, and write personally to the people who are statistical ‘outliers,'” said Suzanne Matson, chair of the English department, in an email.
One of the concerns that she expressed was the meaning students assign to grades and how that was a challenge to faculty.
“One challenge that I don’t think English is alone in facing, is that grades have become enormously important to students because they have to compete so hard for everything from internships to graduate and professional school acceptances,” Matson said. “Students don’t think of a B as a good grade anymore, when, really, that’s what it’s supposed to mean: ‘good.’ And a B-plus is supposed to mean ‘very good.'”
Lisa Cuklanz, chair of the communication department, said that her department also does not have an overarching grading structure that limits instructors to a particular average.
“Our department does not have a ‘grading policy’ per se, but we do require that faculty members put information on their syllabi to inform students about how grades are computed in each course,” Cuklanz said in an email. “Professors make their own decisions about what percentages to assign to individual course components such as exams and papers, how to evaluate student work, and assignment of grades based on their evaluation.”
In the communication department, professors are also informed of where their overall grades fit into the department and University as a whole, according to Cuklanz.
Over the course of their careers at BC, both Hafner and Quigley have seen the University make changes to address grade inflation. Before 1983, Latin honors were given based on students reaching a threshold GPA. As a result of this, more and more students received Latin honors. In order to change this, the University shifted to awarding Latin honors to a certain percentage of the class instead.
“Boston College was able to avoid [Harvard’s] kind of fate because we’ve held tight all through the last decades to an absolute standard for Latin honors,” Quigley said of Harvard’s controversial 2004 class.
Despite fluctuations in average GPA between departments, neither Quigley nor Hafner felt that a Latin honors system by department would be preferable.
“I’d rather see us address the issue of grade compression University-wide and have more shared standards among departments, rather than say, ‘That’s fine, if you want to engage in grade inflation,'” Hafner said.
Last Thursday, the Provost’s Advisory Council met and discussed grade inflation, among other topics. Harry Kent, the council’s UGBC student advisor and A&S ’13, said that in his three years on the council, this was the first meeting that discussed grade inflation. He said that the conversation began partially because of a report from the alcohol task force working with the VPSA’s office.
“They noticed that in measuring drinking behavior that there wasn’t much correlation between excessive drinking habits and GPA,” Kent said. “The administration was wondering why this was. You would think that if people were binge drinking that it would affect their GPAs.”
Although he could not release the data presented at the meeting, Kent said that grade inflation was an issue across all the departments in A&S.
“The information distributed made it readily apparent that students are receiving more As and A-minuses,” Kent said.
Quigley provided a two-pronged approach for controlling the steady upward trend in grades. First, he said that outlying professors, some of whom give grades that average much higher than their department median, need to be approached directly.
“On the faculty end, really convincing a small minority of A&S faculty, who tend to give consistently, over time, grades at the very high end of the spectrum is crucial,” Quigley said. “[We] try to encourage them to be a little more discriminating in their work, really getting a change in behavior among some outliers.”
Quigley also argued that change must come from students.
“Among students, a B-minus I can understand some concern, but I think we’ve gotten to the point where a B, or in some cases even a B-plus and I know in some departments, an A-minus, is seen as some kind of slight,” Quigley said. “Student culture needs to adjust to the fact that a B or a B-plus at a top-ranked national university is no insult.”
Quigley admitted that grading is often the least desirable aspect of a professor’s job, and Hafner agreed that professors often get more negative feedback when the grades they assign are generally lower. Hafner stressed the importance of clarity in professors’ expectations and individual grading policies in order to limit complaints from students.
Despite considering it a difficult part of the job, Hafner, Quigley, and many department heads emphasized the importance of distinguishing between quality of work, and lamented the fact that grade inflation often obscures this purpose.
“Grading is fundamentally about assessing quality,” Quigley said. “I think that the idea of the University, why we credential people, why you have to go through courses and earn credits to eventually earn the Bachelor’s and then the Master’s and then the Ph.D., is that there’s a certain ranking that goes on here, but also there’s a commitment to a kind of hierarchy-a hierarchy of excellence, of achievement, the kind of meritocratic commitment that animates the modern University.”