Grade inflation at the high school level has been a concern for a while now, and the disruptions to education brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic have only intensified anxiety about the controversial phenomenon. Read on to find out more about what grade inflation is, implications for college applicants, and what you can do now to best prepare yourself for the admissions process.
What is grade inflation?
Simply put, “grade inflation” refers to the recent historical trend of students receiving progressively higher grades for work that would have received lower grades in the past. In other words, “A” grades - once reserved for only the most excellent academic performance - are now given out more commonly than ever, resulting in average GPAs that just keep going up.
The chart below shows trends in GPA data collected by the National Assessment of Educational Progress from 1990 to 2009.
As you can see, over the 19-year time frame, the average overall GPA rose from 2.68 to 3.00, while average GPA for core academic courses rose from 2.83 to 3.14. Though the data above ends at 2009, other studies, like one published by Fordham University in 2018, suggest that the trend has continued as recently as 2016.
What causes grade inflation?
There are a number of explanations for this phenomenon. On a basic level, grade inflation results either from class assessments decreasing in rigor or teachers becoming more lenient and forgiving when determining student grades (or both).
This is not to say that grade inflation is completely caused and controlled by teachers, however; various external factors like increasing parental involvement, governmental and public pressures on schools to report positive quantitative data, and changing attitudes toward grading as a cultural practice continue to exert influence as well.
With these causes in mind, then, it’s reasonable to conclude that pandemic-related disruptions have only made the issue more serious. Students all over the country are still unable to experience learning in a “normal” classroom environment, causing them to struggle in ways they never had before. One can imagine how schools may opt to be more lenient and less rigorous with their grading policies, perhaps out of sympathy for students and/or in response to pressure from parents growing increasingly frustrated with school closures. Though the struggling student may be (understandably) grateful for a little wiggle room in the moment, they may feel differently when college admission season rolls around and their high GPA doesn’t really stand out from the crowd.
What does this mean for college admissions?
High school GPAs have long been used as a metric in determining which students are considered for admission. When 4.0 GPAs were truly rare, it was easier for admissions officers to determine which students were most likely to excel in the college environment. However, continuing grade inflation, along with rising enrollment in AP and Honors courses that can push a student’s weighted GPA far beyond 4.0, has made the metric a less reliable indicator of college readiness.
Think of it this way: imagine you’re an admissions officer looking at a batch of 100 applications. You’ve been tasked to separate out the students who have a GPA of 3.5 or higher. As you go through each application, you find that 40 out of those 100 applicants satisfy that requirement. However, you can only choose 20 students to go on to the next round of consideration. What other aspects of the students’ profiles could you look at? How would those 40 students differentiate themselves enough to make it through to the next round?
This is where other factors come into play; beyond GPA, most colleges also consider things like standardized test scores (think SAT, ACT, Advanced Placement, and International Baccalaureate), the rigor of a student’s high school classes, extracurricular activities, and application essays.
As I mentioned earlier, it’s likely that the pandemic will exacerbate grade inflation even further. At the same time, however, colleges considering applicants who were high schoolers in 2020 and 2021 may also make exceptions for low grades during semesters that were especially tumultuous. Both of these situations lead us to the possibility that, at least for the next couple of years, students may not be able to rely as much on GPA when applying to colleges as they have in the past.
What can a future college student do about this?
Remember the list of “other factors” I mentioned earlier? Let me recap that in more detail. In order to set yourself apart from other applicants when college admissions roll around, you can…
1. Make sure to perform well on standardized tests. Standardized tests exist because sometimes grades don’t tell the whole story. SAT and ACT are meant to assess college readiness in general, while subject tests like AP and IB give students opportunities to demonstrate their mastery of course material in ways that don’t involve different teachers with differing ways of assessing students and assigning grades. Achieving high scores on standardized tests will help you stand out in comparison to other students who may not have scored as highly (or not taken the tests at all).
2. Place more importance on taking rigorous courses. When I was in high school, I didn’t do the best job of keeping my college future in mind. In some ways, I’m glad, because I avoided stressing out too much about the future and was able to focus on enjoying extracurricular activities with my friends. However, this also worked to my disadvantage, because I didn’t give much thought to my course choices. I pretty much just took the classes my friends were taking, with teachers I had heard good things about. Looking back, I was a strong enough student to take more rigorous courses, and had I chosen differently, a different set of opportunities could have been open to me.
3. Participate in extracurricular activities and, if possible, run for leadership positions within those groups. The college experience is more than just taking classes; it’s also about involving yourself in the campus community in other ways, like clubs, teams, fraternities/sororities, and charitable organizations. When considering applicants, admissions officers also consider how students might contribute to the college in capacities that aren’t strictly academic. Demonstrating your abilities outside of the classroom is a great way to signal to colleges that you’re well-rounded, a team player, and, if you’re in a founding or leadership position, a self-starter with experience inspiring and managing others. If you’re not currently involved in any activities and don’t know where to start, ask a guidance counselor or look online for local chapters of larger organizations like Science Olympiad. If you’re especially busy during the school year, things like summer programs and writing contests are a good idea, too.
4. Put real work into your application essays. These days, almost every college application requires at least one extended response (that’s application-speak for “essay”!). These writing prompts give you the opportunity to show your true colors in more creative, evocative ways than just a list of courses or activities can. With limited time for real one-on-one experiences like interviews, colleges use these essays in order to get to know you better. To get all you can out of this opportunity, you should start writing early, write and revise multiple drafts, and take essays seriously as chances to capture the readers’ attention and set yourself apart.
Though knowing that grade inflation exists and could have an affect on your college prospects can be discouraging, you've already taken an important step: educating yourself on the problem and learning about the steps you can take today. Your school probably has more resources in terms of test prep, guidance counseling, and academic tutoring than you realize, but if you’re in need of an additional helping hand, the experts at ThinquePrep are here to help.
Want a little extra support in your classes? We help with academic tutoring, both one-on-one and in groups.
Finally, when the time comes to select colleges to apply to and perfect your applications (including those essays!), reach out to us for professional college counseling.
Nina Calabretta is a college English instructor, tutor, and writer native to Orange County, CA. When she’s not writing or helping students improve their skills as readers, writers, and critical thinkers, she can be found hiking the local trails with friends and family or curled up with a good book and her cat, Betsy. She has been part of the ThinquePrep team since 2018.
With offices located in beautiful Orange County, ThinquePrep specializes in the personalized mentorship of students and their families through the entire college preparation process and beyond. With many recent changes to college admissions - standardized tests, financial aid, varied admissions processes - the educational landscape has never been more competitive or confusing. We’re here from the first summer program to the last college acceptance letter. It’s never too early to start thinking about your student’s future, so schedule your complimentary consultation today!