Here is some data about college grades and how they have increased to a modal letter grade of an A:
In 1960, the average undergraduate grade awarded in the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Minnesota was 2.27 on a four-point scale. In other words, the average letter grade at the University of Minnesota in the early 1960s was about a C+, and that was consistent with average grades at other colleges and universities in that era. In fact, that average grade of C+ (2.30-2.35 on a 4-point scale) had been pretty stable at America’s colleges going all the way back to the 1920s (see chart above from GradeInflation.com, a website maintained by Stuart Rojstaczer, a retired Duke University professor who has tirelessly crusaded for several decades against “grade inflation” at U.S. universities). By 2006, the average GPA at public universities in the U.S. had risen to 3.01 and at private universities to 3.30. That means that the average GPA at public universities in 2006 was equivalent to a letter grade of B, and at private universities a B+, and it’s likely that grades and GPAs have continued to inflate over the last six years…National studies and surveys suggest that college students now get more A’s than any other grade even though they spend less time studying. Cramer’s solution — to tack onto every transcript the percentage of students that also got that grade — has split the faculty and highlighted how tricky it can be to define, much less combat, grade inflation.”…Last year, Professor Rojstaczer and co-author Christopher Healy published a research article in the Teachers College Record titled “Where A Is Ordinary: The Evolution of American College and University Grading, 1940–2009.” The main conclusion of the paper appears below (emphasis added), and is illustrated by the chart below showing the rising share of A letter grades over time at American colleges, from 15% in 1940 to 43% by 2008. Starting in about 1998, the letter grade A became the most common college grade.“Conclusion: Across a wide range of schools, As represent 43% of all letter grades, an increase of 28 percentage points since 1960 and 12 percentage points since 1988. Ds and Fs total typically less than 10% of all letter grades. Private colleges and universities give, on average, significantly more As and Bs combined than public institutions with equal student selectivity. Southern schools grade more harshly than those in other regions, and science and engineering-focused schools grade more stringently than those emphasizing the liberal arts. It is likely that at many selective and highly selective schools, undergraduate GPAs are now so saturated at the high end that they have little use as a motivator of students and as an evaluation tool for graduate and professional schools and employers.”
This is quite an increase, particularly as more Americans started attending college in this period. What does this do in the long run for credentialism – the idea that employers and others can get an idea about the competence, skills, and work ethic of people by knowing whether they have a college degree or not. Are employers and students looking for ways to differentiate between students?
Seeing the data by discipline (and not just broad categories) would be particularly fascinating.
Something to note about grade data: good grades can only bring up the average so much since they have a max of 4.0. So the rising average is partly due to more good grades being handed out but also partly due to fewer bad grades (which would have a greater effect on the average) being assigned. Note the last chart: about 78% of grades are either As or Bs, suggesting that students have to work at getting grades below this.