Impacts of grade inflation on students, future job placement

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Grade inflation changes the way GPAs are used. Professors and employers discuss what grade inflation really means. Illustration (Zoe Cook)
Ben Gibbs, BYU Sociology Professor talks about
what grade inflation means.

At the beginning of each semester, new students enter college for the first time, abandoning high school grades for a clean slate. On the other side, college seniors leave with a new GPA, this time from a college or university.

But the meaning and value of this new GPA has changed in the face of grade inflation. This changes how students approach applications to jobs and graduate programs, how employers approach hiring and how schools make admissions decisions.

What do grades represent?

Grades represent “one’s aptitude regarding the material, combined with diligence and timeliness,” according to Nathanael Strickler, a mechanical engineering major. Strickler also expressed frustration with how much scholarships depend on good grades.

For aviation student Baylen Nisse, grades represent “the amount of assignments the person has completed in the semester.”

In the J. Reuben Clark Law School, grades are an indicator of an applicant’s ability to succeed in law school. As such, one of the questions taken into consideration while reviewing applications is, “Do I feel confident that this applicant will be able to handle the academic rigors of the law school?” JRCL Dean of Admissions Tony Grover explained. Last year, the JRCL’s mean admitted GPA was 3.9. But, grades aren’t everything. Grover explained while grades are taken into consideration, so is life experience and the perspective the student adds to the law school community.

This echoes the distinction between assessment and grades which is made within the field of educational assessment.

“Assessment is an attempt to collect evidence of what students have learned as a result of their experiences. And grading is an attempt to take that evidence and translate it into ordered categories,” explained professor Richard Sudweeks, who specializes in educational assessment.

What are grades used for?

Sudweeks cited a 2015 study done on undergraduate grade trends at BYU, which found that student GPAs were going up, but not significantly. A slower increase in GPA within BYU compared to other schools could raise some concerns.

“If we hold fast to our standards and then other law schools don’t, then when they’re hiring, firms are comparing them, right? They’ll look like apples and apples,” said law professor and Yale graduate Eric Jensen. “It’s really apples and oranges.”

Yale uses a broader scale of pass, fail or high pass, relying on its high acceptance bar to prove student competency to employers. This is appropriate when the name of the school stands on its own, as Yale does, Jensen explained.

When the name of a school alone means less, competitive job markets rely on grades and GPAs as a way to narrow large applicant pools, Ben Gibbs, an associate professor of sociology explained. “As a society (we) rely on these simplified metrics,” Gibbs said. In part this is because there currently isn’t a better way to measure a student’s capabilities.

Ben Gibbs discusses alternative ways to grade, the value of
time spent one-on-one with students.

A better alternative might be to increase time spent one-on-one between students and professors, Gibbs explained, but this comes at a high price to professors in terms of time. Class sizes would have to be reduced, and more faculty would have to be hired, which would increase the cost of tuition and make education less achievable for less privileged individuals, Gibbs said.

There are also some limitations to grading, Nathan Speirs, a mechanical engineering professor who teaches the engineering measurements class, explained.

“We do know that (grades are) an imperfect measurement process,” Speirs said. “How do you measure what’s in your head? What’s in somebody else’s head?”

Despite the uncertainty in grades, they help students stay on top of material they might not otherwise be interested in or motivated to cover, Speirs explained.

Consequences of grades and grade inflation

Scott Sanders talks about his effort to focus on improving
student well-being rather than grades.

“One of the problems with grades is sometimes people worry so much about their grade that they don’t worry as much about the learning,” Speirs said.

As a result, some professors resort to giving slightly higher grades to reduce student anxiety and refocus on learning, he pointed out.

Another effect of increasing grades is higher college completion rates. This was found in a 2022 study in the American Economic Journal. “Compared to previous generations of students, recent generations of students spend less time studying, come into college with less academic preparation, and have fewer institutional resources available to help them in college,” Rich Patterson, an economics professor and co-author of the study, said.

For the study, researchers gathered detailed data. Part of this data was from a college that had been using the same test over several years. Students from more recent years who got the same score on the test as students from past years received an overall better grade, Patterson said.

Patterson’s study concludes that because GPA is a predictor of graduation, rising GPAs increase college completion. This in turn increases a college’s ratings (since ratings are largely based on graduation rates), instructor evaluations and student enjoyment of classes, he said.

This does have drawbacks, Patterson said. Lowered department standards “cause their students to spend less time doing coursework, make them less likely to master the subject material, and penalize their hardest-working students by making it impossible to distinguish themselves from their peers.”

Grades in Hiring

When it comes to hiring, skills and unique perspective are often what’s more important than a distinguished GPA, Marylin Richards, an Academic Career advisor, explained. “I’ve only had one employer that I’ve been exposed to that has said to me that he has actually looked at grades,” she said.

While this isn’t very fair, she said, it was because of a large and qualified application pool which needed to be narrowed somehow, and GPA was an easy way to do that.

Spence Wagner, a manager in organizational change and training at Cognizant consulting, said he had a similar experience.

“Here’s what I would argue; it really is that first job, first internship, first position, where grades matter the most,” he said.

After his first job, Wagner was never asked about his grades again. From the other side, with his experience in hiring, he explained that skills and ability to work within a team mattered more than grades.

Ben Gibbs discusses first generation college students and how grades don’t always reflect a student’s effort.
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