Study finds rampant grade inflation is driving up graduation rates

The study found that grades and graduation rates have risen over time even when other markers of learning remained constant.

Researchers wrote that government policies that reward colleges for higher graduation rates may be causing grade inflation.

A new study by researchers from Brigham Young University, the University of Illinois, and Stanford University found widespread grade inflation in higher education leading to higher graduation rates. Researchers found that, according to four data sources that date back as far as 1988, grade point averages and graduation rates have risen significantly compared to other measures of learning, such as test scores. 

Researchers examined data from longitudinal studies of students who were in eighth grade in 1988 and students who were in tenth grade in 2002. They found, “11 percent more first-year college students have a GPA above a 2.0 in the 2002 sample compared to the 1988 sample.” The researchers accounted for other possible factors that may have influenced the increase in average GPA, such as parents’ level of income and education, race, gender, and math scores, but found “none…change the effect of GPA substantively.” 

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The researchers also examined data from nine large public universities between 1990 and 2000. They found that “entering one year later is associated with an increase of 0.019 in first-year GPA.” Even when controlling for demographic factors and other attributes that may be related to a person’s academic standing, such as which courses they took and their SAT score, researchers found that factors other than grade inflation only accounted for roughly a quarter of the increase in grades.

The study also examined data from a public liberal arts university, which the authors do not name. This college was chosen because, from 2001 to 2012, it “required the same core courses and nearly identical end-of-course exams.” Researchers found that, over time, exam scores stayed around the same, but grades rose, and so did the school’s graduation rate. 

The study’s authors say that government incentives may be partially to blame for grade inflation. They write, “As schools and departments face increased scrutiny and, in some cases, increased funding incentives, they may respond by increasing graduation rates. Changing standards of degree receipt is a low-cost way to increase graduation rates. And in fact, graduation rates increased sharply at public four-year schools and community colleges, which rely on tax dollars and can be affected by states’ performance-based funding rules.”

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Campus Reform has covered how colleges and even individual academics have accelerated a decline in academic standards. In April, the University of Pittsburgh introduced a new “G” grade that allowed professors to give students a passing grade even if they had not turned in all required coursework. In 2019, Arizona State University associate dean Asao Inoue argued in his book that “Grading, because it requires a single, dominant standard, is a racist and White supremacist practice.” Last year, a gender studies professor at the University of California-Riverside announced that he canceled the course’s final exam and would give every student a 100 grade instead.

Such practices have also reached K-12 schools, such as in Oregon, where students are no longer required to demonstrate proficiency in reading and math in order to graduate from high school. 

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @AngelaLMorabito