Grades rise as part of national inflation trend

By CHELSEA FLEISCHMAN
News Editor
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Allegheny College has seen gradual GPA increases over time, a feat that many other private and public institutions may be struggling with.

A March 2010 study found that grade inflation has risen significantly on a national level over the past several decades. This trend is especially true for private schools, according to the study.

In its most recent evaluation, the report “Grading in American Colleges and Universities” found that about 43 percent of all grades among the more than 200 four-year colleges and universities examined were As.

Eighty-six percent of all grades in the evaluated private schools were As or Bs.

The same is true for 73 percent of all the public schools.

Provost and Dean of the College Linda DeMeritt said that while she does see that Allegheny has experienced grade inflation, she doesn’t think it is as severe as the data found in the national study.

She said an Allegheny education and grading is more rigorous and demanding than other private schools.

“I say that because I’ve heard of our graduates going out and they complain about competition with graduates from other schools,” she said. “They’ll say something like, ‘Our GPA’s are lower and it doesn’t look like we’re as good’… But employers know the quality of an Allegheny education.”

Approximately 92 percent of Allegheny students start their career within eight months of graduation, according to the Admissions web site.

However, DeMeritt said that she was surprised by the number of students that graduated with Latin honors, which she saw as another example of grade inflation at Allegheny.

Registrar and Associate Dean Anne Sheffield said that the Academic Standard Committee’s decision to change Latin honor requirements was not only because of grade inflation, but also because the change put Allegheny and its peer institutions in similar standards.

Effective in 2010, the lowest honor, Cum Laude, was raised from a 3.3 standard to a 3.5 and the middle honor, Magna Cum Laude, from 3.5 to 3.7.

DeMeritt said that grade inflation is a reflection of a shifting social mentality.

She referenced a comic that she had seen years ago, the image of a little boy carrying a large trophy for last place as his parents stood by sporting a proud wide grin.

“We seem to be in this society where failure is taboo,” she said. “I think it’s good to fail sometimes, and I definitely know that it’s really good to have to work to get a good grade.”

Glen Wurst, professor of biology, agreed, and said that like modern day parent-child dynamics which seem to be comprised more of a friendship than authority, a similarity evolving attitude among faculty has also lead to a national GPA increase over the years. He began teaching in the fall of 1975.

“Nowadays some students and professors are good friends,” he said. “It leads to faculty being more personally involved in the student experience.”

Wurst pointed out that as a consequence, professors may become more flexible, losing rigidity and stringency in grading policy or course criteria, but that it was for the student’s best interest.

“It is a balance,” he said. “You have a level of teaching that makes sense to you and if students just don’t get it, you’ve overshot the mark.”

One of his own classes is a biology course designed for non-majors, which is largely comprised of upperclassman looking to fulfill their lab requirement.

He said that as a result, the mindset is much different than that of a biology student taking his genetics and evolution class.

“There’s a different dynamic there and I try to meet them halfway, and therefore that course is not as rigorous, and therefore the grades are higher than they would be if I was teaching to majors,” Wurst said.

DeMeritt agreed that professors have replaced traditional “sink or swim” mentalities with a more supportive approach.

“We think about graduation, not just matriculation,” she said. “It’s more about providing support that will lead to success.”

She said that another reason for the grade increase at Allegheny is the policy change on retaking courses. It used to be that students who received a low grade in a class could retake the course, but both grades were used in calculating the GPA. Now, she said, although the first grade appears on the transcript, only the better of the two contributes to the overall GPA.

Jackie Gerhing, assistant professor of Political Science, began at Allegheny five years ago straight out of law school. She said that while it’s clear that grade inflation is a national issue, changes in student population and performance lead to constant grade fluctuations.

As a newer professor, the growing trend is also more difficult for her to recognize.

“For me, this is sort of how grading has always been,” she said. “I might be part of this system where grade inflation is already taking place.”