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Grade Inflation: How it Impacts College Admissions

Parents always share their students’ weighted GPA with us first.  “He has a 4.7,” moms always say.  “She has straight As all through high school,” dads will tell us.

Demonstration of grade inflation since 1991

This slide from a recent presentation shows the change in GPA distribution over the last 25 years.

The problem is this:  everyone else does too.  Well, half of everyone else.  It’s a national concern, and it’s called grade inflation.

Grade inflation is a well-documented problem in American secondary education.  This article details a study that shows that almost half – 46% – of American high school students earned an A average in 2016, up nearly 10% from 20 years ago, when the grade distribution curve looked a lot more balanced than it does now – tilted towards the top.  Grade inflation impacts how colleges review applications, and the decisions they make.

Grade inflation extends to ranking as well.

A quarter of the 4-year college-bound members of this 468-student graduating class were ranked #1.  How do colleges distinguish between them?

Magellan counselors were recently on a webinar in which the speaker was the Dean of Admission at Swarthmore College, a highly selective liberal arts college in the Philadelphia suburbs.  He told us that some high schools have gone even further down the path of so-called grade inflation.  Some high schools have multiple, even dozens of, valedictorians.  In some schools, any student who has a 4.0 average is bestowed that title, and given the rank of #1 in the class.  How can everyone be number 1?  And more importantly, how can colleges distinguish between students whose transcripts, class rankings, and course rigor look remarkably similar?

Bottom line:  your student with a super-high GPA and straight-A average is….average.  Thanks, grade inflation.

However, over the same 20-year span, average SAT (and ACT) scores have declined just a little bit – and the distribution of scores continues to look today like it did back then – and it looks like a bell curve.  In other words, the testing really can show a difference between students who otherwise appear to have the same level of academic performance.  And while some colleges appear to be turning away from testing, even those who claim they are test-optional or test-flexible will consider any test scores you send.  Additionally, if you browse the list of test-optional colleges, you will see that although the list is growing, it continues to be heavily dominated by religious colleges and art schools.  There are a small number of traditional research universities and liberal arts colleges on the list as well.

It’s important for you to understand – as a consumer – that deep down, colleges are in a competitive business in which they are highly incentivized (through various ranking systems) to bring in classes with higher scores and higher grades than their previous classes, and than their nearest rivals.

test score distribution is immune from grade inflation

ACT score distribution for students in the Class of 2016. Over 1.5 million students take the ACT each year; 2,200 or so receive the top score of 36.

In the end, all of these number games could add up to disappointing news for your straight-A student, who honestly believes that his/her impressive school transcript will pave the way for admission to a highly selective college or university.  Unfortunately, it will not – colleges now have to look far beyond the transcript to test scores and personal qualities, which can be demonstrated through commitment to extra-curricular activities.

Additionally, we also ALWAYS advise students to really dig into researching colleges, to find those little details that can show how they (the student) will contribute to the college community, and how they (the student) will benefit specifically from what each college offers.  (See this post for more on why you shouldn’t apply to all eight Ivy League schools.)  Being able to successfully articulate how you fit at each college, and how each college is a good match for you academically, socially and emotionally, could make the difference between bad news and the fat envelope!

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