Ten years ago, 32 percent of graduating seniors received some form of “Latin honors” from the University of Southern California.[1]  This year, 44 percent received “Latin honors.”  Way to go Southern Cal!  Recruiting all those extra smart kids!  I bet the Ivy League schools will be taking their meals standing up after that spanking.  Oh, wait.  Turns out Harvard granted “Latin Honors” to more than half its graduating seniors.[2]

Granting “Latin honors” isn’t based on the subjective direct judgement of individual merit by the faculty members.  It’s based on the more objective quantifiable judgement of Grade Point Average.  So, Southern Cal and all the many other schools granting “Latin honors” to a growing share of graduates is just an artifact of long-term grade inflation.  According on one expert, a 3.7 GPA (on a scale of 4.0) “is just a run-of-the-mill student.”[3]

It starts in the schools.  In 1998, 39 percent of high-school seniors graduated with an “A” average.  In 2016, 47 percent graduated with an “A” average.  Over the same span, the SAT Critical Reading scores fell from an average of 505 to an average of 494; the Math scores fell from an average of 512 to 508.[4]  Students expect to continue their high-school experience in college.  Elite schools claim that they haven’t studied the trend, and don’t know how to explain it.[5]  The situation probably differs at tuition-driven, not-selective schools.  Too many schools pursuing too few students has led the recruiting effort look like feeding time at the shark tank: “Throw in another goat.”  After the admissions office has done what it can, the faculty face a heavy emphasis by their employers on retaining the students who have been admitted.

Grade inflation is like monetary inflation.

It is fueled by a weak authority in charge of controlling the volume of the unit of exchange.   In the case of the schools this could be parental pressure applied through the influence of a school’s reputation on housing prices.  In the case of colleges and universities, it is the desire to attract student dollars.  A strong authority might tell students that they aren’t particularly distinguished, or well-prepared, or hard-working.

It distorts incentives.  Thus, if you can get the same or more money for less work, then you’ll do less work.  If you can’t trust the money to have real value, then you’ll pursue other stores of value.  One form of this could be a flight to non-public schools with a reputation for greater rigor, or to home-schooling.

It favors people, better positioned to exploit the nominal value of a unit of exchange/measure and disfavors people poorly positioned to do so.  Employers, for example, lack any reliable means to evaluate the educational attainment of potential employees.  High GPAs fog over individual differences in both ability and work ethic.

The historical record shows that breaking an inflation is very painful and politically difficult.  People are willing to try this only after conditions have become intolerable.  We aren’t there yet.

[1] That is “cum laude,” magna cum laude,” and “summa cum laude.”

[2] Down from 91 percent in 2001.

[3] Melissa Korn, “You Graduated Cum Laude?  So Did Everyone Else,” WSJ, 3 July 2018.

[4] See:

[5] See “Captain Henri” in “Casablanca.”