College Hack #4: Understand Grade Inflation

Grade inflation is a permanent feature of the contemporary University landscape. I’m not even going to quote any statistics or facts or figures—you know it’s true. Instructors need good teaching evaluations, and students are happier in the A to B- range than in the C+ and below territory. Standards are lower than ever, partly because there’s so much work to do that spending 30 minutes each grading 100 five page papers seems like a bad idea. Think about it, that’s 3000 minutes or 50 hours. There is no chance that a professor (or graduate student) with a bloated section of a popular course can spend an entire work week (yes, we work more than 40 hours/week) doing nothing but grading the final paper at the end of the semester. So the choices are to not assign a paper, to assign a really short paper, or to grade them in 3 minutes each (that’s still 5 hours). When these conditions prevail, there are a lot more multiple choice tests or lighting fast grading, and eventually A’s and B’s become the norm, not C’s. I’m sure there are other pressures that elevate average GPA’s at college, but what does this mean for you?

  • Inflate your grades. Everybody is doing it, so you have to as well. It is no longer good enough to have a 3.0 GPA and expect to compete for any special prizes like admission to graduate school or a job. If the average GPA in your unit is already 3.4 you have to keep pace, at least. A lot of students will still manage to drop into academic probation, and now that is proof that they aren’t doing anything at all (well, they may be sleeping a lot or drinking or playing video games, but they sure didn’t turn in any assignments). Unless you are in a very difficult field (e.g., some sciences, math, technology), you really should be able to get good grades by going to class, turning in every assignment, and studying efficiently (see other College Hacks for tips).
  • Employers don’t trust grades. Conversely, your 3.9 will be viewed with skepticism by prospective employers. This means that your internship, experience, and actual skills are far more important. Since employers can’t tell how bright you are from grades, until they start requiring the GRE or something you’ll have to prove your worth with internships and other solid lines on the resume.
  • Get ready for more testing. Since grades aren’t that valid, there will be more and more assessment plans to attempt to figure out if students are learning anything. This means you’ll be taking tests and filling out surveys, not for points toward grades, but for the Department to demonstrate an effective curriculum.
  • Your GPA is not evidence that you’re awesome. This one hurts. Used to be, you had a 3.5 or better and you could strut the campus looking smug that you were ruling the school. No longer. Now the GPA can accidently suggest that you are doing really well, a feeling that can be stomped out of you when it’s time to do some real work such as writing, public speaking, teaching, or creating. Outside the classroom, the world wants results and high quality products and services. But you may have been taught that you are pretty good when in fact you can’t speak, teach, write, or produce anything of value. The antidote to this poison is to make sure that you emphasize skill development during college. Most of this takes place outside the classroom unless you have an applied major like engineering, architecture, fashion design, or graphic art. It’s never too early to start becoming skilled at speaking, writing, thinking, problem solving, teaching, leading, and creating (whatever it is that you make).

In the “age of mediocrity,” grade inflation has eroded the value and meaning of the GPA. Ultimately, this can be used to your advantage if you recognize that it is happening. Don’t be lulled to sleep by satisfaction with your grades—let all the other students become passive. You should still get the best grades you can, but you will be way ahead of the pack if you look past the mere accumulation of credits towards graduation and start focusing early on excellence in skills and experiences.


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