Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Inflate the Grades!

Galley Friend L.B. sends along this Washington Post story on grade inflation, a subject about which I'm quite conflicted.

On the one hand, my undergraduate career was somewhat hampered by attending a university which did not truck much with grade inflation--my graduating class's mean GPA was something near 2.70, meaning that one could graduate in the top 10 percent of the class and still be barely at a 3.5.

Many is the time I've cursed grade inflation and the grade-grubbing runts who chase after it.

But on the other hand . . . what good are undergraduate grades, anyway? The only use they really have is as a metric for graduate school admissions (any employer who cares about your undergrad grades isn't worth working for) and here grade inflation makes sense. As a for instance, take medical school.

Med school admissions are conducted on nearly a straight by-the-numbers points scale made up by combining an applicant's GPA and MCAT scores. So a 3.98 from Southwest Saginaw State or Goucher College counts for much, much more than a 3.45 from, say, Harvard or MIT.

I don't know about you, but I'd rather have the girl with the 3.45 from MIT doing my triple bypass.

So at the elite universities, they'd be crazy not to grade inflate. If Harvard were to start throwing around C's, smart high-school students who wanted to be doctors (or lawyers) would be doing themselves a real disservice by going there. In order to continue attracting the best students, elite schools must--and should--inflate grades.

And if the elite schools inflate grades, then chances are the crummy schools will, too. But that's okay. Because if all colleges have roughly the same obscene level of grade inflation, then GPAs cancel each other out, and grad school admissions will become more a factor of test scores--which are standardized, and a much fairer (if still imperfect) indicator of academic success.

There are other arguments for grade inflation, too--which I won't get into here. I'll merely say that college isn't what it used to be and for the outrageous fees being charged by institutions of higher learning, one could reasonably argue that parents aren't buying "education," they're purchasing a fungible documend. And a retailer who sells that document but mars it with bad grades doesn't really understand the business they're in.

Remember, it was the colleges themselves who decided they were in a business--and not a public service--when they began charging as much as the market could bear for their product. It's no accident that grade inflation tracks nicely with the inflation in the cost of a college degree.


Anonymous said...

Someone should start a list of jobs that you actually have to go to college to prepare for. There are obvious ones:
But think of all the fields that require degrees but going to college doesn't actually prepare or help you one bit:
Politics and public policy
Anything and everything related to office management

So think about it, unless you're going to be a lawyer or doctor or scientist, why spend the $100K to go to college when they don't prepare you in the slightest to enter the field you wish to work in?

Anonymous said...

Don't forget engineering.

I'm not convinced of the "straight" comparison of GPAs between compass colleges and the Ivies. I'd argue that med school folks are pretty discerning about that sort of thing.

I'd also argue that the MCAT is a good means of washing out grade inflation, as they're a standardized means of measuring knowledge (or lack thereof.)

Anonymous said...

you're right, a degree is a prerequisite for the second group I mentioned, but it in no way prepares you for actually working in that field. For example, there is probably nothing you learn at college today that you cannot learn on your own to prepare to be a teacher. Yet I don't know of a single school district that doesn't require its teachers to have a college degree. We're low on teachers in this country and we're requiring they have degrees, seems retarded to me. A degree used to mean something, now it means almost nothing, because we've made it easier to get in and we've made it easier to graduate. Kids who aren't interested in a field that really requires a degree ought to consider saving the $100K and learning something on the job, or attending a specialized school that teaches you a real skill.

Anonymous said...

Yes, it makes much more sense to eliminate a degree requirement. That way, everyone can hire high school graduates because after all, there's not that much difference between college and high school.


The idea that a college degree is useless to an employer is utterly risible. Credential deflation is not the problem; we're still in inflation mode. The elite kids these days know they will probably be going straight to graduate or professional school.

Anonymous said...

Contrast grade inflation with grade compression. At my institution of higher learning, we are urged to protect the straight A while most grades fall in the B to B+ range. A student once told me that a "C+" was for those who never do any work. So C+ is the new F, at least in my neck of the academic woods. Another indication of compression rather than inflation stems from the changing standards of Phi Beta Kappa admission. Studies of grade inflation should also include PBK criteria, which change nationally and locally.

Jonathan V. Last said...

I'm afraid that I am intimately, carnally, familiar with the medical school admissions process and topcat is simply wrong. No matter where you apply, your GPA is given the exact same weight as everyone elses. And that GPA (multiplied by 10) is added to your MCAT score (from 1 to 45) to give you your med school "number."

From time to time some admissions offices will look at your science-only GPA as a raw score, but again, school of origin counts for zero.

Anonymous said...

If you are a white male with no pull with the Board of Trustees your chances of being a doctor in this country are slim to none.

This comment from Topcat is simply incorrect. Here are two citations:


That said, it does not seem likely, as Jonathan Last suggests, that *every single medical school* shares the same GPA weighting formula for admission. Nor that it is the case for every medical school that undergraudate institution has no weighting factor. This type of uniformity is very rare: Hopkins uses the same system as Harvard which uses the same system as SUNY-Downstate. Can this be true? Do you have a source for it?

Jonathan V. Last said...


For one thing, most people don't realize that there aren't very many medical schools--only about 120 in the United States (I believe it's either 122 or 123). All but a handful of these schools accept a common application (by handful, I mean about 15 or so), which is a very brief affair, focused almost solely on your numbers. Because there are so few med schools, the process of admissions is pretty standardized--it isn't like law school or college where 10,000 institutions have come up with 5,000 different ways of doing things.

Anyway, these medical schools are flooded with so many applications, that it is simply impossible for them to weigh one candidate against another in the initial sort. So every year the admissions offices do a massive cut of applications, where all applicants below a certain "number" (remember, that's 10 times your GPA plus your MCAT) are simply rejected out of hand. The percentage of those tossed out in this initial cut is substantial, and the few who move on to other considerations (such as how you perform in an interview or where you went to school) are grouped together very, very tightly.

I'm sure that in this phase some preference is given to applicants from "elite" schools, but there are two sides to that coin: No medical school wants to take more than 5 or 6 kids from the same college, so if there are 20 Harvard applicants with the same scores, some of them are going to be turned away simply on the grounds of collegiate diversity.

It's a grim way to do business, but the logistics make any other process pretty unworkable.

As for my sources, I'm afraid you'll have to take my word for it. I spent four years at Johns Hopkins up close with this stuff, worked at Thomas Jefferson, and applied to 22 medical schools. (That's nearly 20 percent of them!)