Is Looking at GPA Lazy HR? The Role of Grade Inflation

by Matthew Stollak on Wednesday, August 27, 2014

As a professor, I am vigilant in examining my grading practices to ensure students are receiving a fair and deserved grade.  I want to ensure that the grade reflects the work and performance a student demonstrated over the course of a semester.  Last semester, I taught two sections of the same course - one section earned an average grade of 3.12 (on a 4.0 scale), the other a 2.67.

Unfortunately, grade inflation has been a major problem at many colleges and universities.  As Libby Nelson at notes:

By 2007, 83 percent of all grades at a sample of 200 four-year colleges and universities were A's and B's. And research from a former Duke University professor found that A's have been the most commonly awarded grade at four-year colleges since the 1990s:
grade inflation

One school, Wellesley College, attempted to combat grade inflation by enforcing an average grade for an introductory class: a B+.  If a faculty member exceeded this grade, he or she had to explain, in writing, why the higher grade was justified.

What was the impact of such a policy shift?  Research by Kristin F. Butcher, Patrick J. McEwan, and Akila
Weerapana in the Journal of Economic Perspectives

found that results were immediate; average grades were brought down in previously high-grading departments.

Further, not only did it impact choice of major, but evaluation of teachers; with tougher grades, teachers received lower ratings...SHOCKING!

However, where HR should take note is how GPA is used for hiring decisions.  Wellesley students were obviously concerned that lower grades would impact hireability, particularly if they were the only college instituting such a change.   As Butcher, et al, note:

"They point to examples of web-based job application systems that will not let them proceed if their GPA is below a 3.5," the authors wrote. "The economist's answer that firms relying on poor information to hire are likely to fare poorly and to be poor employers in the long run proves remarkably uncomforting to undergraduates."

In the absence of other universities replicating Wellesley en masse, is using GPA as a criterion for hiring lazy HR?  Do firms have evidence that the higher GPA is not only necessary for the job being performed, but distinguishes good performers from poor performers?  Further, if all colleges (other than Wellesley) engage in grade inflation, is the GPA really meaningful for hiring purposes?


One comment

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