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National grade inflation trend impacts Kenyon

Average GPA rises over last decade, but clear causes elude professors.

Published: Thursday, November 14, 2013

Updated: Thursday, November 14, 2013 16:11

 

Since the 1980s, the student body has grown not only in size, but also in mean grade point average, according to the Office of the Registrar.

While they did not provide specific numbers, the Office said the average, once in the range of 2.75, has risen to somewhere around 3.25. The most common grade given in recent years has been B+.

“Average grades have been going up,” Associate Professor of Mathematics Bob Milnikel said. “That is sort of unambiguously there in the data. Whether or not you choose to characterize that as inflation is a very loaded question.”  

Grade inflation refers to distributing grades higher than previously assigned  for a given performance level. Some debate the term as well as the causes, but all of those asked did notice a definite increasing trend.

“The arguments for [grade inflation] are fairly obvious: we want our students to be competitive,” Milnikel said.  “If everyone else has rising GPAs, we have to match.”

Generally, students with a higher GPA are considered more likely to get accepted into graduate programs and achieve post-graduate success in the job market. The “matching” that Milnikel alluded to would be an attempt by Kenyon professors to make sure their students remain competitive with students from other schools.

Or, students could be improving. “It could be that by holding to the exact same standards we always have, student GPAs are rising as a result,” Milnikel said. “I don’t know if anyone is going to call that inflation. It’s just that a stronger student body is going to have stronger GPAs, though it would be very very hard to do any kind of objective measurement to tease apart why grades have been going up.”

Other professors seem to agree with the second hypothesis, also citing improved teaching as a factor.

“We now take pedagogy more seriously than we used to, acknowledging a diversity of learning styles and the importance of participatory learning. If this is right, we should expect more students to do well,” John Lysaker ’88, a professor of philosophy at Emory University, said.

Professor of Political Science Fred Baumann witnessed this rise in his own grading, though he doubts it may provide a competitive edge. 

 “Like any inflation, it gets discounted. I think at a certain point, trying to pull [grades] back leads to the problem,” he said. “That could make [students] arguably less competitive.” 

For professors, there may also be an incentive to make sure their grades keep pace with those doled out by their colleagues.

“The real competition that operates is among the professors. You don’t want to be the only one handing out C+ as a good grade. We’re in competition with each other for enrollments,” Baumann said.

Beyond course enrollment numbers, there seems to be even more at stake, such as tenure.

“We take student evaluations very seriously,” Milnikel, who formerly chaired the Tenure Promotion Committee, said. Ultimately, the cause for such a rise in grades remains unclear. While there may be pressure on professors to give higher grades, it also appears students are genuinely earning them.

“I do think junior professors are often hesitant to give low grades, or at least too many of them,” Lysaker said. “I have maintained the same rubric and scale for about 15 years and it has allowed me to distinguish truly excellent work.”

There’s another problem with a consistent rise in student grades: the top of the scale is always going to be an A+. “Everything gathers at the top,” Baumann said. “If we could go above the scale to a ‘titanic’ or ‘colossal’ grade, then I wouldn’t care, but we’re dealing with a fixed scale. I feel like I’m kind of jammed up.” 

Baumann pointed out that by bringing up the lowest grade usually given, one is left with fewer grades to differentiate with. “When you do that, you’re discouraging people from really working hard,” he said. 

Several professors mentioned this problem and offered possible solutions, but none expressed a sense of urgency.

“I don’t see this as a crisis in either direction,” Milnikel said.

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