The Tyranny of Straight A's

Across a wide range of schools, As represent 43% of all letter grades, an increase of 28 percentage points since 1960 and 12 percentage points since 1988. Ds and Fs total typically less than 10% of all letter grades. Private colleges and universities give, on average, significantly more As and Bs combined than public institutions with equal student selectivity.


(HT:Mark J. Perry)

Hey! You wannna graduate with a 4.0? Then you should go to an expensive private college. Seriously. This is the latest insidious impact of greed for money on the quality of education at American colleges and universities. People are receiving inflated grades which make most grade point averages meaningless accept as a high-pass filter. Therefore employers are unwilling to hire college graduates since they can no longer use GPA as a discriminating factor to ascertain potential employee quality.*

What this means is that expensive schools are keeping 90% of the people they enroll around for four to six years as sources of tuition rather than educating them or proving their worth to the outside world. In an article entitled “Where A Is Ordinary: The Evolution of American College and University Grading, 1940–2009” Stuart Rojstaczer and Christopher Healy describe the difficulties this causes recruiters and Graduate School admissions personnel.

It is likely that at many selective and highly selective schools, undergraduate GPAs are now so saturated at the high end that they have little use as a motivator of students and as an evaluation tool for graduate and professional schools and employers.

Former Clinton Administration Secretary of Labor, Robert Reich pointed out some obvious and tragic truth recently when he told recent college graduates they were (expletive deleted)**. Reich pointed out the following labor market casualty figures.


That’s been the pattern over the last three graduating classes: It’s been taking them more than a year to land the first job. And those who still haven’t found a job will be competing with you, making your job search even harder.

While Dr. Reich and I agree on relatively little politically, I respect the man for speaking unpalatable truths in The Glorious Land of Hopium. He then goes on to discuss how this will put them behind just about every wealth creation power curve that exists. All of this is fundamentally true and is a worthwhile analysis for any young graduate to read and accept as a grim truth.

Reich’s analysis of education as a public good is also quite prescient. Unfortunately, it is also dated. What Reich should have said is that education is intended as a public good. This is where Perry and Reich intersect. Reich explains college graduates are not likely to be hired. He explains that the economy is wrecked and people are not looking to hire. Perry explains why they are loathe to hire college graduates.

I’ll conjecture that hiring authorities are hiring fewer college graduates precisely because of grade inflation. They can no longer tell the difference between average and good based upon GPA. This causes them to view college graduates as a higher risk of failure than they used to be. That, combined with the subpar economy,*** causes massive unemployment among new college graduates. By deliberately inflating grades to keep subpar students on campus to pay more tuition, colleges and universities are sabotaging the future of students who truly work hard and earn As.


* – This has also effected certain fields of study more than others. This is why some liberal arts and soft science degrees have fallen into disrepute, while some STEM fields have held their value.

** – He didn’t mean you were about to get laid.

** – I could toss in the increasing cost of providing mandatory benefits for human capital. That’s another blog for another day.


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