About six years ago, I was sitting in the student union of a small liberal arts college when I saw a graph on the cover of the student newspaper that showed the history of grades given at that institution in the past 30 years.
Grades were up. Way up.
I'm a scientist by training and I love numbers. So when I looked at that graph, I wondered, "How many colleges and universities have data like this that I can find?"
The answer is that a lot of schools have data like this hidden somewhere. Back then, I found more than 80 colleges and universities with data on grades, mostly by poking around the Web. Then I created a website (gradeinflation.com) so that others could find this data.
I learned that grades started to shoot up nationwide in the 1960s, leveled off in the 1970s, and then started rising again in the 1980s. Private schools had much higher grades than public schools, but virtually everyone was experiencing grade inflation.
What about today?
Grades continue to go up regardless of the quality of education. At a time when many are raising questions about the quality of US higher education, the average GPA at public schools is 3.0, with many flagship state schools having average GPAs higher than 3.2.
At a private college, the average is now 3.3. At some schools, it tops 3.5 and even 3.6. "A" is average at those schools!
At elite Brown University, two-thirds of all letter grades given are now A's.
These changes in grading have had a profound influence on college life and learning. When students walk into a classroom knowing that they can go through the motions and get a B+ or better, that's what they tend to do, give minimal effort.
Our college classrooms are filled with students who do not prepare for class. Many study less than 10 hours a week – that's less than half the hours they spent studying 40 years ago. Paradoxically, students are spending more and more money for an education that seems to deliver less and less content.
With so few hours filled with learning, boredom sets in and students have to find something to pass the time. Instead of learning, they drink.
A recent survey of more than 30,000 first year students across the country showed that nearly half were spending more hours drinking than they were studying.
If we continue along this path, we'll end up with a generation of poorly educated college graduates who have used their four years principally to develop an addiction to alcohol.
There are many who say that grade inflation is a complicated issue with no easy fix. But there are solutions.
At about the same time that I started to collect data on rising grades, Princeton University began to actually do something about its grade-inflation problem. Its guidelines have the effect of now limiting A's on average to 35 percent of students in a class.
Those guidelines have worked. Grades are going back down at Princeton and academic rigor is making a comeback.
A similar successful effort has taken place at Wellesley College in Massachusetts.
Princeton, Wellesley, and Reed provide evidence that the effort to keep grade inflation in check is not impossible. This effort takes two major steps. First, school officials must admit that there is a problem. Then they must implement policies or guidelines that truly restore excellence.
I asked Dean Nancy Malkiel at Princeton why so few schools seem to be following Princeton's lead.
"Because it's hard work," she answered. "Because you have to persuade the faculty that it's important to do the work."
Making a switch will take hard work, but the effort is worthwhile. The alternative is a student body that barely studies and drinks out of boredom. That's not acceptable.
Colleges and universities must roll up their sleeves, bring down inflated grades, and encourage real learning. It's not an impossible task. There are successful examples that can be followed.
I'm looking forward to the day when we can return to being proud of the education that our nation's colleges and universities provide.
• Stuart Rojstaczer is a former professor of geophysics at Duke University. He is the author of "Gone for Good: Tales of University Life After the Golden Age" and many articles on higher education and grading, and is the creator of gradeinflation.com.