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Pencils Down

I Know Why College Grades Are Going Up. It’s Definitely Not Wokeism.

A college professor explains the real causes of a hotly debated phenomenon.

Harvard University commencement
Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe/Getty Images
Harvard University’s commencement in 2023

Public confidence in higher education is at an all-time low, with significant drops in approval ratings in recent years among both Democrats and Republicans. Across the country, college professors and administrators face accusations—with varying degrees of merit—that our costs are too high, our degrees don’t prepare students for the workforce, our research and teaching are too vulnerable to ideological capture, and our academic integrity is compromised. Meanwhile, our students stand accused of being more “depressed, anxious, and fragile” than ever.

One issue concentrates all of these accusations into one powerful gripe about students, faculty, and administrators, a Rorschach test of public discontent over higher education: grade inflation. A pair of Ivy League professors recently raised alarms over this issue. Harvard professor Steven Pinker says he’s seen a dramatic shift in the percentage of A grades in his 20 years teaching at Harvard and that he’s spoken to deans who are “concerned” about it. Nicholas Christakis at Yale says grade inflation reflects “the way universities have become alienated from their core mission,” focusing more on “student experience” than learning.

Even as we see countless headlines about grade inflation in both trade and national media, there remains some dispute over whether it’s happening at scale. Joshua Eyler, a professor and administrator at the University of Mississippi, points out that what looks like grade inflation—nearly 80 percent of all grades awarded at Yale are in the A range—could actually be grade compression: Yale is simply awarding more As because more Yale students are better prepared to genuinely earn As.

But there’s enough public concern over grade inflation to merit discussion of the possibility of this trend—and to discern who might really be to blame for it. Is it “woke” or weak-kneed professors? “Snowflake” or entitled students? “Experience”-obsessed administrators? Those are the usual targets, anyway. But few people opining on this alleged crisis have thought to consider that much of the pressure on the grading process is originating from outside college itself.

“‘Undeserved’ Grades or ‘Underserved’ Students?”—that’s the titular question that sociologists Mark Horowitz and Anthony L. Haynor and political scientist Kenneth Kickham asked in a 2023 study on “faculty anxieties and eroding standards in the corporate University.” Their survey of 223 tenured professors at large, public universities found that 48 percent believed grade inflation was a “serious problem,” while 37 percent admitted to “routinely inflating grades.” 

From these results, the trio developed what they call the “broke-woke-stroke” thesis. “Broke” refers to the corporatization of higher education, in which, they write, “cash-strapped colleges and universities scramble to attract and retain students,” keeping students happy with artificially high grades and keeping them enrolled instead of failing courses. “Woke” refers to declining academic standards as a result of social justice objectives, including by using inflated grades to paper over structural performance disparities that disproportionately impact students of color. “Stroke” refers to “generational changes associated with increased student entitlement and fragility,” which faculty address by stoking student egos instead of facing student wrath for the assignment of low grades.

The broke-woke-stroke thesis is intriguing, though these observations require a bit of context to have any explanatory value. It’s true that college life is heavily corporatized, though I have argued that colleges today treat students more like employees than customers. And the institutions that get the most public criticism for grade inflation—Harvard, Yale, and other highly selective institutions—have no problem enrolling and keeping students. In other words, while some colleges and universities might feel the need to tacitly incentivize grade inflation to attract and retain students, the most selective institutions dominating the headlines receive tens of thousands of applications each year, admit fewer than 10 percent of applicants, and are still subject to accusations of grade inflation.

In my experience teaching at highly selective colleges and universities for the past decade, my sense is we’re seeing a combination of grade compression and inflation: increasingly well-prepared, well-supported, well-taught students who earn their high grades, and some structural incentives for professors to bump borderline grades up. When the latter is happening, it’s not about wooing and retaining students or stoking their egos so much as assuaging student anxieties about employment. There’s an important structural irony here. Employers partially rely on the college degree and grade-point average as signals of a student’s preparedness for work, but employment also imposes so powerful an incentive on college students that in their desire to appear as strong job candidates, they push back against the very credentialing system that underwrites the signal employers rely on.

In short, students intuit that our grading systems function more as signals to employers and graduate admissions committees than as pedagogical tools that enhance their learning, so they have strong incentive to game the signal. This is one reason why no hand-wringing over grade inflation will ever resolve the issue without resolving the basic tension between academic and job-preparation incentives in higher education.

Of course, grade inflation is only a problem if it’s realistic that students and administrators can put serious pressure on professors to be more generous with our grading than perhaps we would otherwise. Too often critics assume “woke” professors are handing out grades for activism, for political agreement, or simply in protest of oppressive or “neoliberal” systems, undermining academic rigor and integrity.

The reality is not so simple. According to a recent survey, just 24 percent of professors are tenured, plus another 9 percent are working on the tenure track. That leaves more than two-thirds of all professors working in contingent positions for which there is little to no job security or contractual protection from a grade dispute with a student. Research also shows that student evaluations of teaching—standard practice in higher education—can cause grade inflation by empowering students to “shape faculty behavior,” requiring precariously employed faculty to choose between the good evaluations they need to keep their jobs and the prospect of upsetting their students with low grades.

Even professionally secure faculty like me know to anticipate the possibility of grade complaints, so when we assess student work, we spend significant time justifying the grades we assign. This isn’t all bad; it’s important for students to understand the rationale behind the feedback, regardless of the grade. It’s not enough to just write “wrong” on a paper without some explanation. Grading student work—especially, though not exclusively, essay assignments—is time consuming and not always factored into faculty employment contracts, particularly for adjunct faculty.

Accounting for the various levels of respect granted to different kinds of professors and subject matter is crucial for understanding grade inflation. When students hear from parents, politicians, and others that some courses of study—it’s usually in the arts and humanities—are easy or professionally impractical, they’re less likely to grasp a low grade. Students enter their physics and chemistry courses expecting the material to be difficult, so are primed for the possibility of poor performance, which means those professors have some latitude to assign low grades without backlash. By contrast, students may enter a course in English literature believing it should be easier than their math classes, or in African American studies believing it’s more “political” than their business classes, so if in either case such courses turn out to be more rigorous in reality than in reputation, student responses can be hostile.

In my English courses, for example, I emphasize factual accuracy about the content and historical context of what we read, an emphasis reflected in how I grade student work (with less attention to prose style and rhetoric and more attention to logical, evidence-based argumentation and accurate grasp of subject matter). I don’t go out of my way to assign arduous amounts of reading, but the reading in my subject area—the British Enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries—is usually challenging and unfamiliar to students, most of whom are encountering it for the first time.

Nevertheless, it doesn’t always occur to students—because of what they’re told, not through any fault of their own—that part of what makes my subject unexpectedly challenging is having to develop a solid grasp of lots of factual content and having to make basic sense of a substantial amount of assigned reading. Students shouldn’t expect to spend more time reading and studying for my courses than they should working on problem sets and studying in their math or physics courses, but they’re sometimes shocked to find that they also shouldn’t spend less time on my courses. This isn’t because I’ve miscommunicated or they haven’t paid attention; they’re shocked because I teach courses in the English department, and those are supposed to be easy.

This last point is important context for one of the most common grade-inflation assumptions—that it’s more pronounced in the humanities and social sciences than in the natural sciences. Grades in science courses do tend to be lower than in humanities courses, but there’s no clear evidence that grade inflation is any higher in the latter. It’s easy to reach for the explanation that unrigorous or ideological humanities professors just dole out easy As. But it’s more likely that low public opinion of some subjects—Why on earth would you major in jazz?—renders low grades more of a battleground in those subjects, that those subjects are also heavily staffed by faculty with low job security, and that the public at large has less tolerance for challenging reading and writing than challenging math.

Anyone who cares about grade inflation should be interested in solving such structural problems. Fretting over “wokeness” or blaming students or professors in isolation doesn’t adequately address what’s going on.