Grading on Campus: Is the Easy A Here to Stay?

Leaked data at Columbia University shows plenty of students are getting A's. Is it grade inflation, or is everyone really just that smart?

Remember the days when college students fantasized about being tech savvy enough to hack the campus computer system and change their GPA to a 4.0? For students at Columbia University, A's come easily—no hacking necessary. According to leaked stats obtained by the school's student paper, the Spectator, professors gave A's and A-pluses to 8 percent of undergrads. Is it grade inflation, or are Columbia's students really just that smart?

The Spectator obtained a spreadsheet with data on 482 students, including their class years, majors, and academic advisers, when a dean mistakenly emailed it to students. According to the data, economics, English, and history majors are more likely to rack up A's, as are seniors.

But couldn't students just be working harder and taking college more seriously? Given the tough job market, it's undeniable that students are feeling the pressure to have a perfect GPA on top of an Ivy League diploma. Except that the number of A's being given has been on the rise since well before the economic downturn. According to Spectator:

Minutes from a 2007 meeting of the faculty of Arts and Sciences note that 70 percent of grades were in the B-plus to A-plus range, the percent of A’s given in Core classes had risen from 45 percent to 55 percent in the previous 10 years, and that A’s given in science classes had increased from 40 to 45 percent.


In an era when student evaluations carry more weight than ever—often factoring into whether a professor gets a raise or even tenure—professors may be reluctant to give a grade lower than a B.

Susan Elmes, the director of undergraduate studies in the economic department acknowledges that professors are hesitant to assign grades below a B-plus. "If you look at your official transcript and see the percentage of A grades awarded in classes, you might be surprised to see the number of classes in which the percentage is well over 50 percent and in some cases, 80 to 90 percent.”

Columbia's brouhaha isn't the first time, and it certainly won't be the last, that accusations of grade inflation are made. Unless schools step up and figure out how to give the grades that students deserve, without devaluing the achievement of exemplary students, the easy A is here to stay.

photo (cc) via Flickr user flc214

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