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Common causes of grade inflation in higher education

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The spiraling up of grades and grade point averages (GPAs) at colleges and universities is reaching epic proportions, according to a 2012 study showing that As now likely make up over 40% of all letter grades. That's a percentage increase of nearly 30% since 1960. As college transcripts become more and more saturated with too easily awarded As and Bs, grades and GPAs become less and less meaningful for employers and other stakeholders.

Grade inflation occurs when students receive higher grades than the quality and quantity of their work or the level of their learning merit, and the origins of the problem are many and varied.

A 2009 study reported that the threat of students "pestering" their professors for higher grades lead to grade inflation. When the students observed cared a lot about their grades for certain courses, they were more likely to pester those instructors for higher grades and succeed.

Like students, administrators commonly pressure instructors to inflate grades. Under pressure to maintain and increase enrollment, upon which financing depends, department chairs and deans may be overly concerned with student (read customer) satisfaction, as evidenced on student evaluations of their professors and courses.

Administrators routinely depend on student ratings to make decisions about tenure (for full-time faculty) and retention (for adjunct faculty), and since the tenure system dictates that assistant professors either move up or out within three to seven years, grade inflation becomes a survival tactic for both part- and full-time faculty.

Because financing is linked to enrollment, colleges and universities are increasingly adopting lax academic policies known as academic forgiveness policies. Allowing students to drop courses without grades in the final weeks of terms and to take courses over again for grade forgiveness, for example, helps low-performing students to "white out" Ds and Fs on their transcripts, according to researchers Jonathan Marx and David Meeler. Astoundingly, Marx and Meeler found that such rules may help students keep "25 to 50 percent of their entire college coursework" from affecting their GPAs.

When everyone gets As and Bs, no one does, making it hard for students who truly do excel in their studies to stand out from the crowd in a highly competitive job market.

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