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Making Practical Sense of Grade Inflation: Axioms and Advice for ESL Applicants

Planning to study abroad? Learn what grade inflation is and what steps to take to get the most out of it.

Tuesday March 28, 2017,

8 min Read

Higher education is a business. School make money. Schools do marketing. Schools compete with one another to win bright and, ideally, rich students. According to a Jeff Silber research, the size of the higher education industry roughly amounts to $475 billion USD. Average cost of a bachelor’s degree from a for-profit college is around $63,000.00 USD. For international students, it’s double or even triple that. Naturally, if a student pays that kind of money, certain things are expected. Perhaps most significant expectations lie within:

quality of education;

post-graduation employability;

student to professor ratio;

quality and timeliness of knowledge;

atmosphere and quality of life;

fairness in grading.

This particular post deals with fairness in grading and will show the ways in which students can be mistreated across higher education systems in the US, Canada, UK, and how they can avoid being a victim of grade inflation.

The Myth of Fairness in Grading

According to one statistic, no country in the world, historically, has ever been as equal socially as United States is today. This dominant characteristic of fairness becomes obvious when one moves from a developing country to a developed one or when someone moves to an English-speaking country for their academic studies. 

How often do you think people in developing or underdeveloped countries skip waiting lines, turn to their neighbors for help instead of their country due to lack of working social security, or ignore popular culture in favor of their personal, ego-centric interest because that’s the only way to survive? This happens all the time. In US, UK, Canada, and other English-speaking countries, though, which are economically and socially developed, there is no need to resort to such practices. Fairness is in the air, so to say, and each and every citizen can trust the system to support them in time of need.

There is however a crack in the wall. Grade inflation has been occupying contemporary higher education systems in the US, UK, and Canada for quite some time. Grade inflation, which refers to a systematic rise in college grades from the fifties and up to now, sort of disrupts the very fundamental democratic regime that also ought to be present in higher education. A C-grade piece of school work completed fifty years ago, ceteris paribus, would earn you an A in year 2015. 

For the same amount of work and knowledge as fifty years ago, college students are happy to be receiving progressively higher grades and there seems to be no stopping to this. If students are happy, parents are happy and, as a result, colleges are happy. While this is clearly unfair to people who have completed their studies decades ago, the grade inflation trend has many implications for students who have yet to go through post-secondary education. After all, a student got to know what to expect from the school.

Below are some digested thoughts regarding attitudes and strategies for combating and working with grade inflation. Insights are split into two tiers. The first tier is rather factual and tells what definite changes grade inflation brings, while the second tier is analysis-driven and discusses what strategies can be used for bettering job prospects, college grade prospects, etc., in view of nationwide grade inflation.

Insights Tier 1: Axioms or Truths for Sure

These are some insights that will help you become more educated regarding what you’re getting yourself into:

1. Ignoring grade inflation will do you no good. It applies to each and all. If you find yourself at a disadvantaged school in terms of grading, your chances are instantly lowered.

2. Every students in an XYZ discipline competes with every other XYZ-discipline student.

3. Grade inflation leads to a simultaneous devaluation of college degrees. If there are so many people with ultra high-GPA diplomas, the job market value of each such diploma drops. Supply and demand 101.

4. Grade inflation goes hand in hand with an evolution of requirements in interviews The flip side is that you’re going to have to produce more evidence at interviews if your transcript reads 4.0 GPA.

5. Getting into a top school is more important than ever.

6. On average, more renowned and more expensive schools tend to exploit grade inflation to a fuller degree than community colleges and state schools.

7. It will take years before something can be done on the state level and it will take even more years for changes to come into effect.

8. Regardless of qualifications, a prospective student has an array of options to work with their chances of getting into a top school.

9. Considering grade inflation, it might be more worthwhile to spend your time in a B-grade school than a C-grade school even if B-grade school is harder, more expensive, and less pleasant to be at.

10. International students, as the minority group almost exclusively willing to aim for higher level institutions regardless of English level, might want to wait for a year or two to get into an even better institution than formerly expected. With PhD and Master’s degrees, the wait might be worth it. Such degrees are a serious commitment. Furthermore, PhDs and Masters often require work experience. Given grade inflation, time is on the student’s side.

Insights Tier 2: How to Benefit from Grade Inflation

Is there a best strategy? Can grade inflation be played upon or even exploited to get a better bang for the buck? This is my view of how international students and perhaps domestic graduates can make wiser choices regarding where to send their applications, whether to transfer or not, when to transfer and why.

The tendency to award higher grades across post-secondary institutions means that you can do the following:

1. Take a look at gradeinflation.com. The nationwide craze for combating grade inflation started with a research paper by Stuart Rojstaczer that later developed into this informational resource. The nationwide GPA changes chart needs no further explanation. The resource has university-specific statistics from school to school, so do take a close look at the school you are preparing for. To-be students and fresh high school graduates are to carefully select their school of choice, so as not to lose on the favorable trend. When the rest of the country is benefitting from grade inflation, it would be a serious disadvantage to miss out on the trend by going to a school that has demonstrated a consistent grading practice over the years.

2. If you know you’re unable to meet the requirements set by a school in terms of knowledge or homework quality, still don’t hesitate to apply and ultimately go to that university. With grade inflation in full effect, the grades that you will be getting will still be better than those of people who have graduated before you. There is another trend that has recently struck post-secondary education - gradual decriminalization of studying and preparing for classes in groups. Not having a smart friend by your side to help you, these are some resources to help you find a real person for a one-time consultation:





which you can use to ask questions and connect with people in your field of study

3. Because grading is often outsourced to teaching assistants and in some cases even external assessors, the choices you make at admission are most important. Try to search discipline-specific forums and relate the information you find to school rankings that can be found either at QS World University Ranking or perhaps more independent Shanghai Ranking.

4. It makes sense to plan for a sophomore-year (second undergraduate year) transfer in view of grade inflation. Statistically, second and third years are most popular among those who transfer.

5. Ratemyprofessors.com can tell you how vigorous certain departments are. Search for mathematics or biology under the university you’re aiming for and look for the average ‘easy grader’ score for that department.

6. Money-wise, it may be more worthwhile to spend money on a private school or a top-tier university far from home with a view to receive better overall GPA on graduation.

7. There has been a lot of speculation regarding whether grade inflation could refer to generally higher IQ levels, or whether it is a sign of a degradation of sorts in the circles of post-secondary education. One thing is for sure. Your IQ has nothing to do with the strategy you take to get a better grade.

Conclusion and Further Thoughts

Is grade inflation a sign of a nationwide decline in quality of education and, as a result, lowered expectations? Some statisticians do tell so, as the digital age seems to have taken the world by surprise. Grade inflation has been bothering state officials in the US, UK and Canada for quite some time and, while intentionality may be hard to prove, grade inflation seems to have sprung into life with the help of colleges and professors. On a micro level, professors may be getting more lenient, while on a macro level, school authorities may be demanding from professors that students perform well. Whether intentional or not, on a macro or micro level, grade inflation surely is a real trend to keep an eye out for.