If you were to hazard a guess, what percentage of all grades distributed at Bowdoin are Bs or As? Or put it this way: Just how prevalent is grade inflation? Well, that depends on when you attended Bowdoin. Twenty years ago, the average GPA at the school was 3.06, around 46 percent of all grades given out were in the B range, and 32 percent were in the A range. A decade later, in the 2001-2002 academic year, the average GPA of the student body was a lusty 3.30, just a hair below a B-plus average. By then, just over 87 percent of grades were either As or Bs. Plus and minus modifiers weren't introduced until 2003, to great student indignation. At the time, students fretted that professors' use of modifiers would result in generally lower marks, but grade inflation plodded on undisturbed by this development. By 2007, 49 percent of all the grades doled out were in the A range, and only 8 percent were a C or lower. Hello, Lake Wobegon!
Perhaps this all sounds nutty—to those of another generation, when a C truly constituted average work, it most certainly does. But then consider this: In 1994, The New York Times noted that 93 percent of the grades received by Stanford undergrads were As or Bs. And Dartmouth and Williams in 1992 had averages of 3.23 and 3.24, respectively. All three of these schools today have averages approaching or above a 3.50, while Bowdoin likely languishes somewhere below a 3.40. (The registrar's office has not released new averages to the Orient as of late.) At grade inflation cocktail hour, Bowdoin was just getting her coat off when the rest of the entourage started the second round. It doesn't take much insight to notice that Bowdoin students would be better off if the College caught up with its peers.
When it comes to the downside of inflation, students at schools with higher averages face the difficulty of trying to stand out when strong GPAs are within reach of everyone. But in the larger world, it behooves a college for its graduates to have sterling grades; after all, higher averages mean students have stronger competitive positioning. A school that resists the rising tide—Princeton has tried—risks damaging the prospects of its young alumni. Fighting the trend means diminished employment and graduate school prospects, and what dean can conscientiously hamstring the opportunities for her students, especially in this economy? So with every school hesitant to dilute its students' credentials, grades rise as faithfully as the sun. Perhaps one of the more serious issues grade inflation presents to a school is the potential cheapening of its credential. If graduate programs and employers get wind of unrestrained inflation, it may devalue that school's degree. However, since elite private colleges can plausibly claim to have superior students, it follows that their students should have the best grades. Not surprisingly, the data show that over the past 20 years inflation has been greatest at competitive private institutions. With few incentives to stop inflation—those schools have not been penalized for it—and many reasons to allow it, it's no surprise that averages continue to rise. So for the administration that is trying to secure the best opportunities for its graduates, a lot of inflation is not such a bad thing at all.