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On the June 4, 2021, episode of Real Time with Bill Maher, the host makes the claim:

In 1960s colleges awarded A's to 15% of the students. Now it is 45% of the students.

Ref: Youtube clip from the show

I was able to locate some supporting articles, such as timeshighereducation and theboar.org, yet they did not strike me as conclusive.

Is the claim made in the show true?

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    Is this 45% of all grades are As or 45% of all students earn at least one A? It's a bit ambiguous. – CJR Jun 11 at 11:39
  • @CJR The source does not specify this. However, the context is that amount has tripled compared to that of half decade ago. – pinegulf Jun 11 at 11:40
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    @pinegulf the 1960s were more than half a century ago, not half a decade :-) – Hulk Jun 11 at 12:38
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    I have a suspicion that it's related to the cost of tuition. Maybe not 100%, but when you are looking at repaying a loan, the larger the loan would tend to make you work harder to make it mean something. When 4 years of college in 1969 cost roughly 1 year today (adjusted for inflation), I would think the student has more reason to get good grades to pass. But that's not something I know how to prove. finance.yahoo.com/news/… – computercarguy Jun 11 at 18:03
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    Isn't it self-evident that if you turn higher education into a for-profit industry, all the customers need to "buy" something for their tuition fees, and therefore everybody needs to get an above-average qualification? – alephzero Jun 12 at 15:32
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The title asks a broader question, while the body seems to focus on something more specific. Since CJR's answer seems to have addressed the more specific question, I'll try to address the broader one.

Yes, this is extremely well documented, and the trend has not been at all subtle. A good book on the topic is Grade Inflation: A Crisis in College Education, by Valen Johnson. Grade inflation has been especially pronounced at schools with highly selective admissions and in the humanities and liberal arts. It exists, but is less extreme, in STEM fields and at community colleges and other less selective institutions.

Popov and Bernhardt have collected a lot of data as a function of time. As an example, here are their numbers from Yale for average GPAs:

  • 1960: 2.56
  • 1980: 3.27
  • 2000: 3.48

One could ask whether students are just doing better work these days, so that they deserve the better grades, but actually there is a lot of evidence that they are assigned less reading and writing than in the past, and that their critical thinking skills develop less now than they did in the past. This is discussed in Academically Adrift, by Arum and Roksa, who also demonstrate that the lower outcomes are not just because a broader demographic is going to college.

Johnson did some very clever studies to show that there really is a difference between STEM and non-STEM fields, and also that there is a cause-and-effect relationship between grades and student evaluations of teaching. For STEM/non-STEM, he looked at grades for both STEM majors and non-STEM majors in STEM and non-STEM classes, i.e., closer to or farther from their own specialization. For the cause-and-effect relationship, they devised a ruse in which students were allowed to give online teaching evaluations, then saw their grades, and then were asked to redo the teaching evaluations. They found that students revised their evaluations based on their grades.

A popular theory is that this trend really got going in the US during the Vietnam era, because professors didn't want students to drop out and get drafted. The beginning of the trend also coincided in time with the period when student evaluations of teaching became a thing, so that there was more pressure on instructors to give good grades. Part-time faculty are especially vulnerable to these pressures, and the trend toward teaching as many classes as possible using part-timers dates to roughly the same period. However, as far as I know these cause-and-effect relationships are not objectively documented in any scientific way. Anecdotally, though, the pressure from student evaluations is pretty obvious, though, for anyone who's been on a tenure committee or has been involved in hiring and retention decisions involving part-time faculty.

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    Prior to the mid 1960s there was nothing wrong with getting a "gentleman's C". Only swots got A's. (Swot is an outdated term. A close modern equivalent is nerd, except swot was even more derogatory than is nerd nowadays.) – David Hammen Jun 11 at 20:15
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    @DavidHammen: In my social circles, "nerd" is often a term of endearment, and not derogatory at all... – Kevin Jun 13 at 7:03
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    I would imagine that those admitted to YALE were more of a random selection 50 years ago than today. Basically, if you are likely to exit a school with all A's you're "just" another average YALE undergrad. Top schools can demand this kind of non-random selection student body. – Edwin Buck Jun 13 at 13:33
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    "a lot of evidence that they are assigned less reading and writing than in the past, and that their critical thinking skills develop less now than they did in the past" This answer would benefit from actually citing this evidence, other referring the reader to a seriously flawed book that costs money. – Onyz Jun 14 at 14:32
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    Aren't universities more selective with admissions now than they were decades ago? – Jimmy Carter Jun 14 at 14:42
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Well I tracked down the origin of the claim: http://www.gradeinflation.com/

Specifically from [1]:

Plot of grade distribution over year

The authors hypothesize the following to explain these results:

On a national basis, the evolution of grading practices seems to be the result of a gradual abandonment of curve-based grading (Figure 2). Grading practices for private and public schools, which were similar prior to the 1960s, were quite different by the 1980s.

Basically, their theory is that college classes went from assigning grades based on a curve to defining grade achievement requirements at the beginning. That's a reasonably consistent explanation, and I certainly know that many universities require a clear explanation of grading in the course syllabus nowadays.

As always with "research" on the internet, the methods section (at least it exists) will not inspire confidence:

We assembled our data on four-year school grades (grades given in terms of percent A–F for a given semester or academic year) from a variety of sources: books, research articles, random World Wide Web searching of college and university registrar and institutional research office Web sites, personal contacts with school administrators and leaders, and cold solicitations for data from 100 registrar and institutional research offices, selected randomly (20 of the institutions solicited agreed to provide contemporary data as long as the school’s grading practices would not be individually identified in our work).

I would overall rate this as plausible, but the quality of the work is poor enough that I wouldn't say it's true.

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    So in other words, it's not really grade inflation. Schools simply dropped the curve that was deflating grades. – bta Jun 11 at 22:44
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    @bta: Well, isn't that kind of "anti-deflation" a form of inflation? – gspr Jun 12 at 20:23
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    It also seems like it's comparing apples to oranges. Grades given on a curve shouldn't be considered equivalent to grades based on specific criteria. – Barmar Jun 13 at 2:32
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    @Barmar grades on a curve cant really be considered equivalent across groups either, but thats exactly what school grades are used for…. So its always been comparing apples to oranges. – Moo Jun 13 at 7:17
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    @cbeleitesunhappywithSX That's why the first semester at MIT is pass/no-record, second semester is ABC/no-record. They know that the transition to such a difficult school is tough, even for the high achieving students who get admitted. – Barmar Jun 13 at 16:56
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In the early 2000s, Princeton changed their grading policies with the explicit goal of trying to curb grade inflation.

The policy was eventually rolled back after complaints from students that the new policy was unfairly affecting their grad school chances. It's not like Princeton's policy change wasn't well known among other schools.

After an undergrad degree in the late 70s (in Canada, in a department that awarded about 10-15% A-s) and some grad school in the early 80s, I went back and got a US Masters degree in the mid 2010s, right as Princeton reverted the policy. Princeton was definitely a topic of discussion among the profs.

When I jumped back into the higher education game, I was astounded at the distribution of the grades that I was seeing. There appeared to be an expectation among students that they were entitled to an A, or, at the very least a B. That's not the world I did my undergraduate studies in.

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