How the United Kingdom Stopped Grade Inflation

Grade inflation, the long-term increase in the average GPA earned by American college students, has worried education observers for years. While the ultimate drawback is perhaps a little unclear (are people really getting hired for jobs or being admitted to law schools who don’t really know what they’re doing because admissions officers and human resource professionals were hoodwinked by high grades?), inflation is a very real thing. In 1991 the average college GPA was 2.93. In 2006 it was 3.11.

It’s been a problem in other Western countries as well. And, according to a piece in the Atlantic, England might have found a way to keep grade inflation in check: Just don’t worry so much about grades. As Heidi Tworek puts it:

Why not simply have fewer grades and accept that the majority of students might receive the same mark? The United Kingdom’s system only has three classes of grades: first, second, and third (although second is split into 2:1 and 2:2). A first denotes work of outstanding quality. In 2012 to 2013, 19 percent of students graduated with a first. An overwhelming 76 percent of students received a second-class degree (51 percent earned a 2:1, 25 percent a 2:2). Only 5 percent were given a third.

…It’s telling that the most common grade by far is still a second, not a first. When employers all accept that a second-class degree already provides a stamp of quality, it removes the narcissism inherent in minor differences. There are also fewer incentives for professors to assign higher grades if students recognize that the majority of them will receive the same mark. And sticking to four grades hasn’t harmed the UK’s stellar standings in global university league tables.

This also seems like a more or less reasonable solution. American worries about grade inflation have prompted limiting the number of As a professor can assign (on one end) and just abolishing grades altogether (a rare tactic taken by very progressive colleges).

But the U.K. system seems appropriate. Most people don’t really care what kinds of grades you get in college at all. Undergrads don’t really have the opportunity to do the sort of amazing work in college that should result in very high grades (at the survey course level there’s little opportunity for amazing demonstration anyway; it’s just answering all of the questions on the tests correctly). All we’re really interested in is if students did the work, learned something, and are reasonably smart.

By removing minor distinctions from the grading system colleges might return academic grading to what it’s supposed to be: just a reflection of whether or not kids are doing OK. There’s no need for complicated minutia in grading anyway; kids are mostly doing the same quality work, more or less.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer