University Grade Inflation: Private vs. Public Sector

20 04 2010

According to a recent study, grade inflation has been faster at private colleges in the United States than at the public universities. See here.

I’m not certain what this means. My hunch is that the faster rate of inflation at private unis has something to do with the higher tuition fees charged by private universities: people are paying big bucks, so they expect an “A”. A student mentality is replaced by a customer mentality.

Do differences in the rate of grade inflation at universities matter? I’m not convinced they do. When Canada’s road signs were changed from Imperial to Metric in the 1970s, there was a zero impact on the highway death rate because the speed limits were kept basically the same. (It helped that they changed the signs on all roads at roughly the same time, so drivers wouldn’t mistake 100 km/h for 100 m.p.h.) When you drive into the Republic of Ireland from the United Kingdom, there are signs reminding you that the speed limits in that country are in km/h, not miles per hour.

So what happens if one jurisdiction, be it a highway authority or a university, uses a different system of measurement than its neighbours? Provided everyone can do rough conversions, it shouldn’t be an issue. Some people think it is a big problem if a 70 in chemistry at one university has a different value than it does elsewhere. But grad and law school admission officers looking at transcripts from different undergraduate institutions will likely know who uses Metric and who uses Imperial.

I’m a bit more concerned when some disciplines give out more As than other departments in the same institution. The optical illusion of higher grades may encourage the weaker students to change their majors, much like the dieter who decided to replace the old-fashioned bathroom scale with one that gives weight in kilograms. This is isn’t good for the student, for society, or for the discipline that attracts the weak students.

This is an abstract of a study by Paul Anglin and Ronald Meng, “Evidence on Grades and Grade Inflation at Ontario’s Universities”.

“Using information on first-year university grades from across Ontario, we examine whether or not there has been grade inflation by discipline. In a survey of seven universities for the periods 1973-74 and 1993-94, we find significant grade inflation in various Arts and Science programs. The rate of inflation is not uniform. Some subjects, such as Mathematics experienced little or no change in average grades at most universities, while English and Biology experienced significant grade inflation.”



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