When 9 out of 10 Harvard seniors graduated with honors last year, it was proof to some that grade inflation was rampant in American higher education. A spate of reports that followed affirmed the growing threat.
Now comes a new study by the US Department of Education suggesting that the hand wringing may be much ado about not too much.
According to "Profile of Undergraduates in US Postsecondary Education Institutions: 1999, 2000," a national study released this summer, the mediocre grades of C-plus and lower are alive and kicking.
About 34 percent of the 50,000 undergraduates at 900 institutions surveyed earned C's and D's or worse, the study reported. About 41 percent earned B's and C's or mostly B's. Meanwhile, 26 percent earned A's and B's or mostly A's.
On its face, this breakdown may seem unremarkable.
Yet the study contradicts other reports, including one this spring by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, that say grade inflation is widespread. The AAAS report cites a raft of academic studies documenting grade inflation back to 1960 and recounts estimates that just 10 to 20 percent of undergraduates get a B-minus or worse.
"There's been this series of reports all saying the same thing that grade inflation is running rampant and now this [Education Department] report makes that appear more questionable," says Jacqueline King, director of the Center for Policy Analysis at the American Council on Education.
Others agree. A spokeswoman for the Association of American Colleges and Universities told the Chronicle of Higher Education recently that the new report "debunks all the furor over grade inflation."
Overall, the strength of the Department of Education report is its breadth. But it's also a snapshot of just one year and does not track grades over time to see if they ratchet upward, as have some smaller studies. Still, it is the proportion of students receiving high grades or poor grades that, on the face of it, doesn't appear to be in sync with the more alarming findings in smaller studies, Ms. King says.
"It's typically been studies at a small number of institutions, primarily highly selective research universities and liberal arts colleges, that have produced this belief that grade inflation is widespread," she says. "A lot of these have been primarily surveys of faculty."
By contrast, she says, the [Education Department] study may be more reliable because it is based on student transcripts or, where those were not available, student reports of their own grades.
The AAAS report cited a steady rise in the proportion of students at Princeton, Harvard, and Dartmouth who get A's.
Harvard, in response to this and other reports that pointed to grade inflation, adopted some new policies this spring. The school decided to cap the number of honors degrees awarded and to cut the number of A's and B's professors give students.
Some experts suggest that grade inflation is indeed a problem at a few elite institutions but not necessarily across the board.
The Department of Education report did find that private four-year doctorate-granting institutions give far fewer C's and D's only about 21 percent, compared with 33 percent at public doctorate-granting institutions.
While certain schools may deserve scrutiny, these numbers don't have to translate into a general problem of grade inflation at private schools, King says.
"These are highly selective institutions where it would be rather odd to have a large proportion of C's and D's," she says.
Older students earn higher grades than their younger counterparts. For example, 38 percent of undergraduates in their 30s earned A's and B's or mostly A's, compared with 18 percent of students between the ages of 19 and 23.
43 percent of married undergraduates earn A's and B's.
Grades rise with student income, but parents' education level does not seem to have a substantial effect on student grades.
Almost 40 percent of men earn C's and D's or lower, compared with 30 percent of women.
Source: US Department of Education, "Profile of Undergraduates in US Postsecondary Education Institutions: 1999,2000."