By Yuting Pan· On April 19, 2016

In a world of increasing inequality — of treatment, of income, and of wealth — higher education seems like one of the last bastions of true equality of opportunity. Universities are sufficiently structured to incentivize hard work, and also sufficiently open-minded to encourage individual thinking. The erosion of such principles is often decried by both students and the mainstream media, with issues raised ranging from legacy admissions to over-standardization of curricula. In addition, grade inflation is often discussed as one of the largest threats to the meritocracy of liberal academia. There are many reasons why grade inflation is not addressed in universities, but the simplest answer is often the right one: there are no incentives to do so.

In a 2010 study of 80 American four-year colleges and universities, the average grade point average (GPA) increased from 2.52 in the 1950s to 3.11 in the 2000s (Teachers College Record, 2010). The large sample size and extended time period analyzed make it very unlikely that this jump is attributable merely to deviations in grading among schools, and the trend was observed among all disciplines to varying degrees. The trend is particularly pronounced among top private universities. The researchers also found that neither entrance exam scores nor graduate literacy rates had increased over the same period. If schools are neither accepting smarter students nor becoming more effective in educating students, then it becomes difficult to find a legitimate explanation for such a significant increase in average GPA. Given such rampant grade inflation, the questions remain: why it is allowed to happen, and why has there been so little discussion about it?

University grades serve three crucial purposes; they motivate students, measure success for teachers, and differentiate among students for employers and graduate schools (Teachers College Record, 2010). While it is in everyone’s interest to ensure the integrity of grades, it is also in everyone’s interest to keep grades high. Both public and private universities rely heavily on student tuition for funding, and on placements to reputed employers and grad schools for school rankings. The commoditization of the university degree means that more schools are competing for these resources. Schools must generate both push and pull demand by leveraging their relationships with students and their external reputations, and grade inflation is a simple tool with which to do so. Students and parents get spotless transcripts, employers get to recruit from a “top talent pool,” and universities get to boast about the caliber of their current students to the next incoming class (New York Times, 2010). Everybody wins, and in such a system there is little reason to change the status quo.

In many ways, grade inflation is the manifestation of political lobbying in post-secondary institutions. Few teachers and administrators start out with the expectation that they will compromise their grading schemes, consciously or otherwise, and many resist from doing so throughout their careers. However, the importance of having a degree has now increased such that external interests dominate university policies and decisions more than ever before. These interests often have outsized economic power, and their existence explains in part why grade inflation is more rampant at private elite universities than other institutions. These schools work much the same way as private preparatory schools that disproportionately feed into them: hefty tuition, private donations, and alumni endowments put inordinate pressure on schools to turn out straight “A” students, many of whom would balk at anything below an “A-.” At Norfolk University in Virginia, a biology professor was denied tenure for failing to raise his pass rate and was eventually fired for failing too many students (despite a high exam fail rate among students taught by different professors in the same subject) (Macleans, 2008). While some schools have put explicit policies in place enforcing accountable grading, they are the exception rather than the rule.

Grade inflation is popular because it seems to solve the inherent inequality that meritocracy creates. We encourage students go to university to learn and explore, and rigorous grading standards often discourage learning for learning’s sake. To hold students to these standards is to imply a certain redistribution of resources (perfect transcripts, top job opportunities) to the intellectual elite, who then disproportionately benefit economically. These standards are at odds with the premise that post-secondary education should mitigate socioeconomic inequalities. Perhaps even more so than its practical benefits, this conflict of principle is what dissuades universities from discussing grade inflation. In a world where institutions are no longer given the benefit of the doubt, business, government, and the media alike continue to hold universities in high esteem and subject them to increasingly unrealistic expectations.

However, a frank discussion of grade inflation is necessary if universities are to serve their purpose in educating students. The excessive influence of external economic interests encourages a policy that sacrifices long-term achievement for short-term gain. Despite the oft-quoted assessment of university as a “safe place to fail,” students are discouraged from taking risks at the potential cost of bad grades and teachers discouraged from pushing them to actually learn. The result is that universities are increasingly turning out graduates who have better grades and poorer scholarship. In economics, this is akin to a trade-off of investment for present consumption to an extent that is arguably irrational. The consequences include not only the practical implication of potential underperformance in the labour market, but also the precedent it sets for the young adults of our society. It undervalues legitimate achievement and discourages individual thinking, essentially undermining the fundamental merits of university as a social institution.

Higher education is a crucial enabler of socioeconomic mobility and has the ability to embody the modern meritocracy in ways that could not currently be possible in politics and business. Grade inflation in universities thus needs to be addressed not only for its own sake, but more importantly because it diminishes students’ ability to understand the world they live in. University is more than anything a breeding ground for the ideas of future change and progress, and policies like grade inflation by nature discourage provocation of the status quo.

Politician and potential Democratic presidential nominee Bernie Sanders contends that, “[Conservatives] see [Harvard] as a bastion of progressive thought, the brain trust for revolution. Trust me. They can stop worrying. Harvard has many wonderful attributes, but the revolution will not start at Harvard University.” The same could be said of countless other universities, all held in high esteem and whose students almost all have “A” averages. Individual merit has been devalued to such an extent that higher education is arguably in danger of jeopardizing the equality of opportunity that it exists to perpetuate. The institutionalization of grade inflation is incredibly widespread, and must be dismantled if universities are to truly serve as institutions of meritocratic achievement and progressive thought.