The ‘Participation Medal’ Generation

The chart below, first published in the Harvard Crimson student newspaper last October, recently came to my attention. It shows the average grade-point average of Harvard students between 1899 and 2022.

As you can see, there’s been a dramatic rise in average GPA, which began in the mid 20th century. In 1950, Harvard students had an average GPA of 2.55. As of 2022, their average is 3.8 – not far shy of the maximum GPA of 4.0.

It’s truly impressive how much better at teaching Harvard has become. I guess that’s why it’s said to be the best university in the world! Except that’s not what’s going on…

No one can seriously believe the dramatic rise in average GPA reflects a real increase in the quality of teaching. While the early rise might partly reflect admissions becoming more meritocratic, the main factor here is simply grade inflation – students being awarded higher grades for the same calibre of work.

Of course, Harvard is far from alone in having witnessed rampant grade inflation over the last half century. The economist Stuart Rojstaczer has compiled a wealth of data on average GPA at U.S. colleges, and finds that it’s a pretty-much universal phenomenon. Here’s a chart from a paper he co-authored with a colleague in 2010.

And it’s not just a U.S. phenomenon. British universities too have seen grades climb continuously over the last few decades. As the left-hand chart indicates: between 1994 and 2015, the percentage of firsts awarded rose from about 7% to around 23%. And it has since risen further, reaching 33% in 2021.

The right-hand chart confirms that the pattern holds for Britain’s most prestigious universities. In each case, the percentage of firsts awarded rose by around 20 percentage points between 1998 and 2018.

Why are academics grading more leniently now than they were in the past? Rojstaczer argues that the sharp rise seen in the U.S. in the 1960s was attributable to the Vietnam War. Full-time male college students were exempt from the military draft, so professors refrained from awarding the lowest grades to ensure those students didn’t flunk out and get drafted.

As for the rise since the 1980s (which afflicts both Britain and the U.S.) Rojstaczer attributes it to the establishment of a “consumer-based approach to teaching” in which academics’ pay and promotion, as well as their freedom from complaints, are tied to “student-based course evaluations”. Basically: if they’re too stingy with their grades, they’ll receive lousy evaluations, and in addition to the stress of dealing with irate students, they’ll be less likely to advance in their careers.

This sounds right to me. Today’s students are the ‘participation medal’ generation, and until something’s done to rescue academic standards their grades will become increasingly meaningless.

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