Higher GPAs may not mean weaker academics

Grades are rising at all six Northwestern undergraduate schools, prompting cries from some critics that grade inflation is rampant at NU. They point to the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences’ mean grade point average, which rose from 3.02 to 3.26 between 1986 and 1998, and to the School of Music’s average of 3.77, which surpasses its Dean’s List requirement of 3.75.

But by themselves, rising grades are not a cause for much concern.

NU’s reputation and quality of education are as strong as ever. There is every reason to believe students are getting what they want out of NU, whether it is a high-paying consulting job, acceptance at a top-level graduate school or simply intellectual enrichment. Until higher average GPAs obscure a decline in the quality of education NU students receive or degrade NU’s academic rigor, there is no need for an administrative response or artificial grade deflation.

We cannot dismiss the possibility that NU students are more talented or better prepared today than they were 10 or 15 years ago. What some see as grade inflation also could be interpreted as the natural result of years of stronger applicant pools. Before schools and departments start legislating grade deflation or distribution, we might consider patting ourselves on the back for a job well done.

Accounts of students with bruised egos brow-beating professors into giving higher grades are disturbing, but don’t justify a bureaucratic remedy. Instead, students should reserve their whining for instances when they truly feel that they are victims of unjust grading. And for their part, professors and teaching assistants should stick to their guns and not be afraid to hand out low grades.

The critics are right that a shrinking grading scale is bad for both high achievers who run up against a grade ceiling and for all students who are deprived of more nuanced evaluations of their work. But grades are not the only way in which professors can send a message to their students. If students aren’t getting the feedback they need from their professors, then higher grades are the least of our problems.

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