When it comes to grade point averages, up might not always be the way to go.
Dating back decades, the average GPA given at American universities has on average increased to the point where once-extraordinary transcripts now appear nothing more than mediocre. UCLA is no stranger to the trend. According to GradeInflation.com, which compiles GPA data from more than 400 universities, the average GPA has continued to creep up to 3.27 in 2015.
Other schools in the UC system take a stronger stance in their grading policies. UC Irvine’s average GPA in 2010 was 3.01. UC San Diego’s average was a 3.13 in 2015. UC Berkeley requires many of its science classes to give no more than 20 or even 15 percent A’s. These universities either publicly list the average GPA per department for each term or mandate departments follow specific grading guidelines.
UCLA should follow the example of other UC campuses and take a strong, vocal stance against grade inflation. Better yet, it should be a leader, both in curbing its own inflation and in setting an example for other elite universities.
Public universities like UCLA are often makeshift strongholds against grade inflation because private universities are more likely to have puffed up GPAs. According to The Atlantic, both private and public schools gave out an average GPA of 2.30 in the 1930s. That number may sound horrifyingly low, but it’s no more solace to consider that the average GPA at private universities is now up to 3.30. Public colleges provide an average GPA of 3.00
Amit Mondal, a second-year computer science student, recounted experiences with high school friends at Johns Hopkins, Stanford and MIT who complained whenever they didn’t receive an A+. On the other hand, Mondal said his classes, more often than not, didn’t even offer A+’s.
“I sure feel like I have to work harder than my friends to get the same grade,” Mondal said.
One reason for the discrepancy is how school receive funding. An article in Quartz mentions that private schools need to work harder to justify the higher price tags to potential students. One easy way to do that is to promise higher grades to success-driven students and parents.
Such policies incentivize public schools to inflate grades so that their graduates are competitive, but that kind of response is self-perpetuating. William Choi, a second-year mechanical engineering student, said he worries further escalation is the end result of retaliatory GPA hikes.
“I don’t want my grades inflated because then everyone else’s grades will keep inflating too,” he said. “I want other schools to judge by the same standards I’m judged by.”
And the consequences of GPA inflation extend beyond academics. Mondal said most internships he applies for screen candidates by GPA. Employers may fail to account for the difference in rigor required to earn the same grades at one school compared to another.
“Many of the jobs I want, they tell you not to even apply unless you have a 3.5,” he said.
Inflation happens at UCLA too, intentionally or otherwise. David Smallberg, a senior lecturer in UCLA’s computer science department, said while the grades he gives have been rising, he believes it is because students are coming in more qualified.
“I’m applying the same criteria every year, and when you look at it that way and students are genuinely doing better than students in prior years, it’s kind of unfair to change the standards all of a sudden,” Smallberg said.
And that’s true – a small portion of UCLA’s grade inflation could be because incoming students are brighter than their predecessors. But it’s hard to imagine that the average UCLA student is 0.27 grade points smarter than they were 25 years ago.
A public declaration from UCLA about the trend of average GPAs and the administration’s stance on inflation would be valuable because it applies pressure to the real instigators of inflation: universities as a whole.
As an elite university, UCLA’s policies influence other schools. In fact, UCLA is one of only three public universities in US News and World Report’s top 25 national universities. Consequently, UCLA has the soft power to mitigate inflation at other schools, be they top private schools who see the impact of requiring fairer, lower grades or other public schools who see that they don’t have to conform to the easy grading standards of Harvard to be an elite university.
A common argument against addressing grade inflation is that it is a collective action problem. Leslie Ro, a fourth-year political science and Russian studies student, called it a Catch-22. Every university knows that inflation only hurts its students in the long run, but no single school has an incentive to cut out inflation for fear of leaving its students behind in the job market.
That line of reasoning is shortsighted, though. UCLA can continue to tacitly allow its grades to inflate, which will encourage other schools to inflate their grades as well, lest they lose the edge their higher GPAs gave them. Or it can stop inflating its grades, which in the best case will inspire similar deflation policies among other universities and at the worst will simply prevent an escalating cycle of more and more A’s.
It may feel great when you’re struggling in a class but slide by with an A. It’s a problem when your friend who’s on track for a C+ gets an A as well.