(More) Grade Inflation

In Academics Versus Extracurricular Activities, I compared the relative importance of grades versus outside interests when companies assess job candidates.

In my opinion, while grades do play a role in attracting a job offer, other factors play a greater part in the equation. And over time, the importance of grades diminishes significantly.

A lot of this has to do with the difficulty in comparing grades between schools. 

Previously I have written posts on how private schools tend to have higher grades than public schools and where at least one school has inflated its grades to make its graduates appear more attractive to companies.

Today I want to highlight findings from a study that “look at the evolution of grading over time and space at American colleges and universities over the last 70 years.”

The key finding in the analysis is that:

on average across a wide range of schools, A’s represent 43% of all letter grades, an increase of 28 percentage points since 1960 and 12 percentage points since 1988. D’s and F’s total typically less than 10% of all letter grades.

That means that almost half the class is considered an A student.

While some may claim that students work harder and earn the higher marks, it is grade inflation over time. And it makes it difficult to differentiate the true stars of a class (say the top 5%) when so many students receive the same letter grade.

Another difficulty for employers is the variability in grades between schools.

The full study (located behind a pay wall) shows that there are grading differences between public and private schools, between the type of faculty (e.g., engineering versus liberal arts), and geographic locations of schools (e.g., schools located in the southern U.S. grade lower).

None of this is beneficial for those trying to assess graduates’ academic expertise.

As the authors’ state:

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.

I have to agree.

So What Do Employers Rely On?

If I cannot rely on grades to differentiate job candidates, I need to look at two other areas.

One, do they have actual knowledge as a basis for the position?

That means I must quiz potential employees on their skills to split out the top 1% A student from the one down at the 43% lower tier. Usually this involves both strictly technical and practical application questions.

Two, I must look at their extracurricular activities.

I do this to determine if they have any practical experience or interests that may indicate positive job performance.

Many of my management peers feel the same way as I and assess applicants accordingly.

What You Should Do

When preparing to start you career, focus on three things.

Yes, get good grades if you can. But too many students focus solely on achieving high grades and leave it at that.

More importantly, actually learn the skills you need for whatever career path you intend to take. Employers need staff that know the involved work requirements. Not simply someone that knows how to write an exam.

And augment that actual knowledge with extracurricular activities that will assist in your career progression. Consider what skills and experiences are valuable in your career path. Then try and develop them in your summer jobs, volunteer work, hobbies, and so on.

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