The trouble with grade inflation: It works

Easy A’s really do open doors, suggests a new study.

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If you’re a high school senior applying to college this fall, you’ll be getting loads of advice about which school to choose. Your parents and guidance counselors will most likely tell you to challenge yourself, to select a school that will prepare you for future greatness by pushing you to study, to learn, to grow. But if you’re really interested in success, a new study suggests something more cynical: Go for the school that pumps up your grades.

In terms of your immediate prospects, it turns out, it’s just as advantageous to come from a college with lenient grading practices—and, therefore, high average grades—as it is to be above average. Admissions officers at graduate schools are more likely to accept an average candidate from an institution with a culture of grade inflation, according to the study, than they are a comparable student who just happened to attend a school where professors made a habit of handing out low grades. Admissions experts fall prey to this bias, the study says, despite believing they are taking the grade inflation into account.


To make matters worse, the authors found that the same disturbing rule seems to apply beyond academia as well. Just as graduate schools are more likely to choose an applicant with a high GPA, the research shows that employers are more likely to overvalue the worker handling an easy task compared to a colleague working hard to tackle something difficult. In short, if it’s shiny, and pretty, we tend to think it’s gold—a finding that reveals something not only about how people get ahead, but about the flaws inherent to human judgment.

“What I find fascinating about this work is actually the wide range of applications,” said Francesca Gino, a coauthor of the new study and an associate professor of business administration at Harvard Business School. “Both in our personal and professional life, we may end up choosing partners, or choosing friends, or choosing workers, leaders, or team members—and we just might be making the wrong evaluations.”

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The problem is our tendency to put too much emphasis on the individual’s disposition and not enough on the situation—what is known as the fundamental attribution error. We like to think, for example, that the baseball player hit the home run because he’s good or the marketing manager sold the product because she’s savvy. But maybe the player homered because the pitcher is mediocre. Maybe the marketing manager was successful because she was pitching a desirable product.

In this light, even a frustrating practice like grade grubbing actually begins to make strategic sense. On a practical level, in terms of future opportunities, what a student has learned may indeed be secondary to whether he or she eked out an A. So professors and teaching assistants can complain about it all they want: the whining, the begging, and the cajoling for a better grade. The students might be obnoxious, and maybe even undeserving. But according to this research, they’re not wrong.



The lead author on the new study, published in July in the journal PLOS ONE by the Public Library of Science, is a behavioral psychologist named Sam Swift. Now a postdoctoral scholar at the Haas School of Business at the University of California Berkeley, Swift began this research nearly a decade ago as an undergraduate student at Carnegie Mellon University. At the time, he had a vested interest in the subject matter. As a college senior looking for work, he said, he wondered how his GPA would be received given that Carnegie Mellon professors, by and large, resisted grade inflation. “That,” Swift said, “was not a policy that I felt like was working in my

He and his coauthors set out to determine whether there was any merit to these concerns. To do so, they created a two-tier experiment that harnessed both laboratory experiments and real-world data to shed light on the problem.

First, they ran a lab experiment involving 23 admissions officers at a selective US college. The officers were told they were selecting students for an MBA program

and given not only the applicants’ GPAs, but how their performance compared to their peers. Were they above or below average? And by how much? They were then asked to rate the candidates and admit roughly half of them.

The results: Candidates from schools with lower (that is, tougher) grading norms were admitted just 12 percent of the time, while those from grade-inflated schools were admitted 72 percent of the time. Below-average students were almost doomed to fail—at least at the schools with
median and low grading norms—getting accepted respectively 4 percent of the time and not at all.

Grade inflation, however, lifted all boats. The above-
average students at these schools got in 96 percent of the time; average students were accepted at a 91 percent rate. Even the below-average students were winners. They had a 30 percent chance of being accepted, faring better than even above-average students at schools with rigorous grading. And this happened even though the participants were experts—real college admissions officials—with detailed information about the applicants’ situations.

“The school, the situation—that has a big effect on your probability of being accepted. And it’s a dramatic difference,” said Zachariah Sharek, a coauthor on the study. “These are huge jumps.”

Second, to prove that these findings weren’t just theoretical, the researchers analyzed real-world admissions data. In looking at more than 30,000 applications to four selective MBA programs, they found that depending on whether students attended a grade-inflated school, a median one, or one with low grading norms, their respective GPAs averaged 3.57, 3.25, and 2.93. Average students at those three types of institutions—after controlling for demographic and school quality differences—got in at respective rates of 32 percent, 22 percent, and just 15 percent. Grade inflation, clearly, was making a big difference in these students’ futures.

“It threatens the meritocracy of our society,” Swift said. “In the admissions context, we feel like it’s important that the best students get the most opportunities and can move up and contribute to our world. Our data shows that doesn’t happen, to the extent that some great people end up in disadvantageous situations.”

The implications aren’t limited to academia; Swift and his colleagues found a similar tendency in the workplace. They asked 129 working professionals with experience making promotions to imagine they were airline executives. Their job: evaluating hypothetical workers, half of whom ran airports that were historically punctual and the other half of whom ran airports that ran late. Even when those running the late airports were above average—or achieving on-time departures despite difficult odds—they
received lower performance ratings than their above-average counterparts at the easier, on-time airports.

What’s happening, Swift says, is that our brains are taking a shortcut. Someone with a high GPA must be smart. Someone running an on-time airport must be efficient. “That’s not a terrible thing to conclude,” he says. But life is often more complex than that—a reality that can trip up even experts like the admissions officer, who presumably knows that grading standards vary. “It’s really hard for people to look away from that glaring high number or that glaring low number of raw performance,” said Swift. “You see a high GPA, you can’t help but want to accept it—even if you know that’s the function of a really favorable situation.”


In order to adjust for this flaw in our decision-making, the authors suggest a few possible solutions. Colleges, they argue, need to start making clear each student’s class rank. Sharek argues that these percentiles should appear on college transcripts, broken down by major and perhaps even by each individual class. And Swift takes it one step further. Perhaps it’s time, he says, to discard GPAs as a measure of talent altogether. “In our lab studies, we gave out GPA and the relative performance,” Swift said. “And they only attend to the GPA.”

But such changes, he admits, aren’t likely to come fast enough to help students graduating this year. Students with lower GPAs, from schools with more rigorous grading, should do everything they can, Swift said, to show to potential employers or graduate schools just how they stack up against their peers.

In the meantime, some college applicants will no doubt be tempted try to game the system, choosing schools with the most lenient grading standards. But Nicholas Epley would advise against that decision. Smart admissions officers, he says, could review studies like this one, wake up to the fact that they’re overvaluing grade-inflated students, and change their behavior accordingly. “An admissions committee could solve this problem in less than a minute,” said Epley, a professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. “The solution is simple enough.”

All it would take is a formula, he said, calculating an applicant’s performance relative to the school’s average performance. And a little awareness wouldn’t hurt, either. “The problem is overconfidence in our own judgment,” he said, “and I think the only way to remedy that is to recognize that we’re not as smart as think we are.” Even if those straight As on our resumes look really, really impressive.

Freelance writer Keith O’Brien is a former staff writer for the Globe and the author of the book “Outside Shot,” chronicling one town’s lonely quest for basketball greatness. E-mail him at
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