Grade Inflation Continues

There is a story in the 12 March 2009 issue of the Chronicles of Higher Education building on the research presented at showing that post-secondary grades have risen steadily since 1991.

I don’t have any research behind what I’m about to say (so what’s new?) but my experience has been that students come to us and often go through shock when they get here. They’ve been coddled and told their entire lives how wonderful they are. They’ve been rewarded for mediocre work. it’s not that they’re not bright. Not at all. They’re very bright but they’re not very well educated.

At the same time grade averages have risen I’ve had to spend an increasing proportion of time in class explaining how to execute basic academic tasks. Years ago I realized that I had to start explaining explicitly how to research and write a term paper. I had to define “reading.” Now I’ve added a talk about how to take notes and this comes after our course on “Graduate Writing.”

Students have been told repeatedly, prior to WSC, that their subjective “learning experience” is the most valuable thing about their education. They have been told that they get to decide what they should learn and they’ve been told that they get to decide what learning is. It is a shock for them to learn that there is an objective standard for learning and that someone else gets to decide what counts as success.

Our faculty has talked several times about the problem of grade inflation. This study explains our experience and confirms our suspicions. Not only are the primary and secondary educational systems broken, but the post-secondary system of out whack too.

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

    More by R. Scott Clark ›

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  1. Dear RSC,

    I’m now in my 10th year of lecturing and I can say that here in Australia my experience is exactly the same as yours for all of it. It is very frustrating to see the direction of late-modern education in the West. (Bring back lecturing in Latin, I say!).



  2. Dr. Clark,

    Do you know if most graduate programs modify the GPAs of applicants based on the grade inflation of the school they came from?

    I know that some Ph.D. programs consider students to not be competitive if they have less than a 3.85 GPA. This, of course, becomes entirely meaningless if 20% of the student body has over a 3.85. I’m just wondering if colleges are concerned that eliminating grade inflation will hinder the opportunities for their students to get into prestigious graduate programs.

    BTW – When I graduated from the Naval Academy in 1984 the median GPA was just slightly over a 2.5. I wonder if any of my classmates were kept out of graduate programs because their GPAs were “so low”.


    • Hi David,

      Our grads, even with slightly lower GPAs (we have very few grads with GPAs over 3.5) haven’t had much trouble getting into grad school. I think PhD applications are based on a variety of components. The Am schools all know about grade inflation so they factor it in.

  3. Maybe it’s not just grade inflation. Head inflation too.

    Note the meaning of a degree now-a-days. An ephah ain’t an ephah anymore.

    So then what’s to be done? Teachers advocate the wacko system, the student goes to the teacher to learn thus the problem is perpetuated. Few get the idea that actions have consequences anymore, or if they do, they try to circumvent the system by crying foul of some sort.

    If I go to a school and pay for classes, part of the understanding is that they’ll actually enforce a standard and flunk my sorry butt if I don’t do what is required. Then I get to pay again if they allow me back. And if I wisen up, and pass my classes, I get the prestige of graduating from that institution.

    I went through public education back in Ca. I didn’t do the work, they passed me on to the next grade. I really don’t understand the backward logic in this, maybe it’s something like the logic of getting rid of your guns in expectation that evil people will all of a sudden be nice to you and respect you as a human being because you’re not a threat anymore.

  4. Anything to say from the standardised testing bunch? Or are you not allowed even to say anything regarding the matter lest your head roll?

  5. Someone was talking about Gnosticism the other day in an adult SS class. He mentioned that for the Gnostic seeking his special knowledge, he didn’t really need a teacher to teach him something, because this special knowledge was more intuitively/mystically grasped.

    I guess there’s a certain subjectivism that goes along with that.

    Perhaps in our country, democracy has become basically what Plato said it would: “no one has the right to tell me what to do.” And maybe that even extends to knowledge.

    I confess: neither am I immune.

  6. Heh, a standard conversation feature whenever I have lunch with my old grad school advisor is to gripe at least a little bit about the dumbed down curriculum in our department… and this is at a top rated university.

    Although in my experience, the dumbing down seems largely systemic and cultural. Individual professors still generally set high expectations for the class. But it’s tougher when departments eliminate prereqs, and students come in looking either for resume stuffing or credit hours, rather than an actual desire to learn.

  7. At the moment, there is a kind of Gresham’s Law in operation: bad standards drive out good. I don’t know much about the US system, but I know that if you have a single qualification, and particularly one administered by the State, then there will be downward pressure on the standard in order to achieve a long-term improvement in grades. If there were a number of different qualification options, then the pressure on standards would be upward, as employers and universities would be (and become) aware that qualifications are variable in quality, and they would demand better-qualified students.

    On the other hand, one hears of firms which do not appreciate that a Cambridge Upper Second is as good as a First from almost anywhere else.

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