There's a far bigger scandal on campus than parent bribes


A much bigger and wider scandal rages on college campuses these days than rich parents’ bribing schools to admit their kids: grade inflation, which overstates academic achievement and misleads employers when these kids graduate. G. K. Chesterton once observed that something can be so big that many do not see it. Getting into college unfairly through bribes and getting a job unfairly through grade inflation both are immoral and unjust.

A March 30 article by Thomas Lindsay in "Forbes" cites data that should alarm us, “A 5-plus year nationwide study of the history of college grading finds that, in the early l960s, an A grade was awarded in colleges nationwide 15 percent of the time. But today, an A is the most common grade; the percentage of A grades has tripled, to 45 percent nationwide. Seventy-five percent of all grades awarded now are either A’s or B’s. The National Association of Colleges and Employers reported in 2013 that 66 percent of employers screen candidates by grade point average.’”


The Forbes article continues: “The Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation also has studied college grading. The foundation confirms the alarming findings cited above. It found that in l969, only 7 percent of students at two- and four-year colleges reported that their grade point average was A or higher. Yet in 2009, 41 percent of students reported as same. During the same period, the percentage of C grades given dropped from 25 to five percent.”

Now here’s the problem by way of my own experience: when I was a vice president at Hillsdale College a parent asked if the college “had grade inflation.” I said no — to which he responded: “That’s unfair. My kid goes to your school and gets B’s; he goes to the college down the road and gets A’s. Which kid do you think employers will hire — the A student or the B one?” My college, he argued, should impose grade inflation to keep student competition for employment on equal grounds.

He had a point. The prospective employer will not know which schools inflate grades and which do not. And the ones that do are not about to stop. From 2004-2014 Princeton capped the number of A’s in each academic department while the other Ivy League schools did not. Princeton then found that its students suffered in job competition with their still-grade-inflated peers. 

So is there any solution to this double standard of grading? Yes, there is. Colleges are beginning to police themselves. Columbia, Dartmouth, Indiana, and Eastern Kentucky now “contextualize” grades on transcripts. “They provide the number of students in each class as well as the average grade of the class on the students’ transcripts. Indiana University places on transcripts the grade distribution for each course, the class grade point average, and the average student grade point average for each course," according to Forbes.

This transcript transparency better informs students, parents, and prospective employers.

Moving to contextualized grades on transcripts will take time but would more accurately reflect students’ actual academic achievement—for the sake of both the students and prospective employers. That’s why at bottom this scandal is a moral one far more insidious than parent bribes.

Ronald L. Trowbridge is a policy fellow at the Independent Institute, Oakland, Calif., and a former director of the Fulbright Scholars Program. He later served as chief of staff for former U.S. Chief Justice Warren Burger.