College Admissions

Make School Hard Again

Grade inflation needs to stop.


On March 12, news of a massive admission scandal broke in the world of higher education. At least 50 people, including several celebrities, stand accused of paying a consultant named William Rick Singer to get their children into particular colleges by any means necessary. His alleged tactics included falsifying standardized test results and bribing coaches to fraudulently nominate students for athletic scholarships, sometimes in sports they didn't even play in high school.

The revelations have understandably provoked much wailing about the corruption of the university admissions process. But much less notice has been paid to another sea change that enabled this scandal to occur: It is still very hard to get into elite schools, but it's not at all difficult to graduate.

In a different era, obtaining a diploma from an Ivy League school required hard work and real educational attainment for almost any major. The kinds of students admitted through money or connections would often struggle to make it through—hence the so-called "gentleman's C." But the vast majority of those who completed a degree could take pride in their accomplishments and rest easy knowing they were well-prepared to succeed in life.

Not so anymore. Since the late 1960s, universities have increasingly suffered from grade inflation and an emphasis on ensuring that all admitted students graduate. At the same time, schools have become more liberal about accepting applicants based on unorthodox qualifications, from athletic ability to nonacademic accomplishments, disadvantageous backgrounds, and demonstrated social "awareness."

If these changes were simply used to admit a wider range of individuals who in the past would likely have been overlooked but who, given the opportunity, were capable of meeting the strict existing standards, this would be a laudable development. But that is not what has happened.

The old academic criteria, imperfect as they were, were in fact doing a reasonable job of selecting individuals able and willing to handle the rigors of traditional college. The blunt fact is that the majority of people who scored below a 1200 on the verbal and math sections of the SAT would have found it difficult or impossible to handle a curriculum like that required to earn a state-school engineering degree or comparable certification. Today, thanks to grade inflation, such students can and do pass through top schools with top honors, especially in the liberal arts.

There are many ways to achieve success and fulfillment that do not involve attending an elite college. Instead of encouraging people to pursue options well-matched to their abilities, however, we tell young people that their self-worth hinges entirely on the brand name on their college diploma. This creates a perverse incentive to do whatever it takes to get into their dream school, to amass tens of thousands of dollars in student loans, and to select a major based not on the professional opportunities it will open to them but on the ease of the program's academic requirements. Small wonder we now have a generation drowning in debt and struggling to meet the traditional benchmarks of adulthood.

Who Is Losing?

Though grades have always been lower in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) subjects than in the arts and humanities, graduating from a good school with a degree in any major did not use to be a cakewalk. Average GPAs have risen by a full point or more since the late 1960s. shows that at Michigan State, for example, the percentage of As doubled to about 30 percent of all grades from 1963 to 1973 and then rose again by about 50 percent from 1983 to 2013. This is consistent with other research on the widespread change in grading standards nationwide.

As the conversation around higher ed has increasingly come to focus on inclusivity and maximizing graduation rates, elite universities have reacted by eliminating their core curricula, dumbing down the requirements that remain, or providing so many degree options that a student of average ability at an average school could be placed in most top liberal arts colleges and still survive (albeit, perhaps, in the lowest quartile of his class).

A rule of thumb is, the more math, the harder to graduate. Today, a student who gets into an Ivy intending to major in computer science and finds himself in over his head can easily migrate to an easier subject and still walk away with a prestigious diploma come graduation. This is damaging not only to the quality of universities but to poorer students of genuine ability.

Imagine that a striver from a lower-class background, by dint of hard work, manages to attain an A at a college that, as in times past, demands high standards of all its students. In contrast, the rich ne'er-do-well, buoyed by a family trust fund and prone to overindulging on the weekend, either does not graduate from said college or ends her tenure with a C. The wealthy kid will still have all the pull and privilege that family connections can bring, but the smart, diligent student will have her A to show for her efforts.

Now consider the modern alternative: The poorer student, having gotten an A in a difficult major, finds herself competing with a rich classmate who mostly spent her four years partying. Yet aided by tutors and a judicious selection of easy subjects, the wealthy kid graduates from the same prestigious college with what seems to be an equally distinguished A. Who is losing in this new system?

Standardized tests are frequently derided for advantaging the rich. But in fact, they are often the primary way for those without money and connections to make their case. Just imagine if the SAT were so easy that everyone got the same score. Who would more likely win admission to a top school: the wealthy world-traveler with prestigious extracurriculars (and a parent willing to donate a tidy sum to the university's endowment), or the scrappy straight-A student who spends his summers working for minimum wage to help cover his tuition?

Punishing Rigor

Because college rankings penalize schools with low graduation rates, the current system actually harms the schools that dare to buck the trend.

My own alma mater, the California Institute of Technology, is notorious for not having legacy admissions and for being intensely focused on making sure that all its admits are academically qualified. Why? Because someone without the capability to do well in STEM subjects will not make it through Caltech's rigorous core curriculum. All students—even those in economics or history—must pass basic courses in calculus, physics, chemistry, and biology that are shared with students in those majors.

Thirty or 40 years ago, as much as a third of a Caltech entering class of approximately 230 would not finish. Today—since low graduation rates can hurt a school's reputation—dropouts are much rarer. But it is still difficult to complete a degree, especially if you do not have the diligence and skills that tend to be associated with strong science backgrounds and high test scores.

Ironically, these tough standards make rigorous schools less attractive to many good students. I have spoken to admits who chose an elite university because they knew that there, they were unlikely to earn less than a B, while at Caltech they would have to work hard just to graduate.

There have been years in which every single student admitted by Caltech scored an 800 on the Math 2 achievement exam. The combined SAT verbal and math result for the lowest-scoring student is often comparable to that of the average score at an elite school. Just try to find information about the lowest-scoring students at most top institutions: Those colleges don't report the full range of admitted test scores, even anonymously. They want to hide the fact that the bottom 10 percent or so of their classes are substantially less academically qualified than their median admits.

The Envy of the World

This nonsense should cease. Schools are not here to certify the life achievements of the 1 percent, nor does it disparage the value of either sports or more vocationally oriented jobs that universities are not meant to serve those who excel at those activities. They are places for learning and scholarship.

Those who are less academically qualified should not, because of some essay they wrote for a specialized pool of admissions officers, buoyed by a donation from their parents, be granted admission to a top school over a middle- or lower-class child so naive as to think that strong test scores and grades would be enough. Outside the United States, such a system would be rightly filed under corruption and malfeasance—with or without the addition of phony claims to athletic prowess.

Many will chide me and say that the U.S. system of higher education is the envy of the world. As an academic, I answer that this is only half-right. The U.S. higher education system is admired for its faculty research and the products of its graduate programs, not for its level of basic teaching—and the former areas, lucky for all of us, remain overwhelmingly meritocratic. Students at the doctoral level are selected with minimal regard for the "holistic" considerations so prevalent at the undergraduate level. They're generally drawn from around the world without attempts to represent different groups equally. If you doubt this, see how far your lacrosse championship or volunteer experience will go in compensating for low GRE math scores when applying to a Ph.D. program in economics or physics at a top-20 university.

The corrupt undergraduate admissions process at most schools today can flourish because the higher branches of the American academic tree are so good. But the lower branches are rotten with grade inflation and social promotion. The move away from an emphasis on genuine academic achievement and meritocratic promotion has done a disservice to the least well-off while offering more opportunities for the rich and connected to buy the trappings of success for their offspring.

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46 responses to “Make School Hard Again

  1. […] The comical panicky motion of the curling sweepers is reminiscent of the lunge of a parent trying to grab an iPad from a kid who’s had too much “screen time” or to take a “problematic” young adult novel from an impressionable teen. It is perhaps best embodied by rich people engaging in elaborate frauds to get their children into prestigious colleges. […]

  2. About 30% of freshman at Carnegie Mellon, at least when I was there, would not wind up graduating from the school, and there was a running enmity for Stanford that, as asserted by a professor who had graduated from there, had not given an undergrad a “C” in 20 years. Grading was tough, whether STEM or otherwise, and the number of nauseatingly brilliant kids warped curves. I had a 4.0 / 33 ACT out of high school and was a very average student there.

  3. Kids are learning education basics in their undergrad degrees that they should have learned in High School.

    What is shocking is that nobody bothered to explain to young people that they need to know how to use laptops and desktops with business type applications to be successful in the business world. The kids are led to believe that their skills on cell phones translates perfectly and they dont.

    1. When I was in my very first undergrad Biology course we had to write essays because the English skills at that level were so bad that they started making every professor take responsibility for it. It starts at the high school level. Stop teaching every child they need to get into college, and stop dumbing down the college acceptance standards. Not every person needs a college degree and conversely, college should be so intellectually challenging that most students CAN’T handle it.

  4. From HuffPo, here’s a tragic illustration of how far the GOP has fallen.

    John McCain Recited Names Of Dictators During Trump Inaugural, Senator Says

    “Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a candidate for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, sat next to McCain during Trump’s January 2017 speech.”

    If I had been old enough to vote in 2008, I would have voted for Obama over McCain. I would not, however, have called McCain racist, or compared him to Hitler. Because he was one of the last decent, patriotic Republicans — before most of the party embraced white nationalism and sold out to Russia.


    1. “Klobuchar, speaking to a crowd of more than 200 at Jasper’s Winery…”

      That press release just writes itself. She is around 1.7% in the polling so far. Looking good.

      1. 1.7%? That’s insane – I would have guessed that only Bernie Sanders had a 1.7% BAC. The rest of them, maybe down around a .35, a .45 at most.

  5. “At the same time, schools have become more liberal about accepting applicants based on unorthodox qualifications, from athletic ability to nonacademic accomplishments, disadvantageous backgrounds, and demonstrated social ‘awareness.’

    That’s a good thing in my book. I think it’s terrific that common sense gun safety advocate David Hogg got into Harvard with a reported 1270 SAT score.

    1. I always thought football and basketball players got in with lower academic standards because they brought cash and glory to the university, and typically came from disadvantage backgrounds. But this year’s admissions scandal has taught us that sailing and crew and lacrosse “athletes” are getting admitted with lower academic standards because their parents were rich enough to send them to private schools that had those sports. And most athletic scholarships go to students from families with enough money to sponsor them on costly travel teams.

      1. Anybody who is surprised that the children of the wealthy get into prestigious schools for which they would not otherwise qualify is probably astonished at the news that water is wet. My Father (son of a poor Methodist Minister) got scholarship offers from Princeton and Harvard, and chose Princeton because even them, back in the 1940’s, Harvard Undergraduate was known as a day care for the idiot children of the rich.

      2. There are plenty of sports scholarships that do help regular families, though. My little sister got into an Ivy League school with a lot of funding for a sport. She had the grades and the SAT scores to back it up, but we don’t come from money. The scholarship helped her, but she ended up transferring out anyway because the other students were such spoiled snots that she had nothing in common with them and didn’t think her college name would give her enough of an advantage in live to justify her tolerating four years of misery.

    2. “I think it’s terrific that common sense gun safety advocate David Hogg got into Harvard with a reported 1270 SAT score.”

      This surprises me. I would have expected you to be rooting for the Hogg classmate (and clinger-in-training) recently revealed to be a fledgling bigot.

      1. You must have me confused with someone else, Art. Since Michael Hihn has apparently been banned, I’m probably this comment section’s most vocal proponent of sensible, common sense gun laws. David Hogg is a personal hero of mine.


        PS — I also support Ivy League schools encouraging black and brown students to apply if they get 1100 on the PSAT.

      2. Hey, Rev? Why do you even come here?

  6. Their purpose is no longer to prepare students for the job market, it is to brainwash as many impressionable young people as possible. Different goals require different approaches.

    1. It is exactly the opposite, actually.

      In the “olden days”, the purpose of college was to get a liberal (small-l) education. Learn the classics, study Latin, that sort of stuff. Regardless of whether it was relevant in the job market.

      Now college is looked much more as a credentialing factory. The classics have been ditched in favor of getting people job-ready as quickly as possible.

      1. Sure, bud, because someone with a degree in womyns studies is ready for the job market.

  7. An 800 math II SAT? Pffffh. I got one of those, and I know I answered one of the questions wrong. I asked my math teacher afterwards, he showed me the correct answer. I skipped a lot of questions; that one I answered wrong.

    Counselor was all excited. I told him I knew I answered at least one question wrong. He said they checked it again, I got 800.

    Pfffh. SAT scores aren’t as hot as they think they are.

    1. SAT scores don’t work the way you think.

      Yes, an 800 is in theory a “perfect” score. But the SATs always include several categories of questions. One of those categories each year is “test” questions which are being evaluated for continuity, possible bias, accuracy, appropriate level of difficulty, etc. Your answers on those “test” questions are not considered in your personal score. You could get every one of those test questions wrong and still score an 800.

    2. the SAT added a hundred points to people’s scores about 20 years ago, because students weren’t doing as well as they did before. So a 1600 now is like a 1500 when I took it.

      1. My understanding is that an 800 from before the late 80s became a 1000.They changed the mean score. The difference narrows as the score rises so a 1200 would be a 1300, a 1450 maybe 1500 but a 1600 is still a 1600. It’s hard to say exactly. ETS is always tweaking that shit. I was a NMSF because in the late 70s they began doubling the verbal and adding it to the math on the PSAT to include more women but then they did away with the antonyms a year or so later because they supposedly measured verbal intelligence rather than “college aptitude”.

        I never understood what they did with the logic section because it wasn’t used in the scoring. I never missed one on the practice tests and can’t imagine I did on PSAT, SAT or GRE either.

      2. Well why don’t we just make it up to ten?

        Then ten would be the top number.

  8. All have won and all must have prizes. The problem is believing there are objective standards of facts and truth and knowledge. If Billy gets all the answers “right”, he deserves an A for doing the best that he can, but Bobby also deserves an A for doing the best he can even though he only scored a 34 on the test. And who’s to say that 2+2 does not equal 5, that Ferdinand Magellan was not the fourth President of the United States, that Paris is not the capital of Mexico or that water does not consist of two atoms of helium and one atom of polonium? If Bobby subscribes to a different version of the truth than Billy, he is to be applauded for his creativity and his thinking outside the box rather than condemned for failing to adhere to the rigid conformity of the white supremacist patriarchy.

    1. You’re correct. However, Bobby will be in for a VERY rude shock, when he tries to get himself a well-paying job, in ANYTHING other than academia or Government Almighty… And even then, he’d darn well have to score high in “victimhood” to get one of those jobs!

      1. Have you not heard of corporate diversity goals? Gotta have somebody besides white and asian males for the annual report photos.

  9. The politics of envy without the mask:

    “CEOs get $800,000 pay raise, leaving workers further behind”
    “NEW YORK (AP) — Did you get a 7% raise last year? Congratulations, yours was in line with what CEOs at the biggest companies got. But for chief executives, that 7% was roughly $800,000.
    Pay for CEOs at S&P 500 companies rose to a median of $12 million last year, including salary, stock and other compensation, according to data analyzed by Equilar for The Associated Press.”

    Note ‘the workers’ were not shorted, and in fact, got the same rate of increase, but since the CEO started at a higher amount, that’s ‘unfair’!
    Also note that AP payed someone to provide provenance for this bullshit.

    1. Also note that, if a rich person pays taxes at a lower rate but much, mich more $$ than a poor person, that’s unfair, too.

      1. Simplified: rich person = unfair. Just ask any Progressive.

  10. If all you could get was a liberal arts degree, you’d love grade inflation, too.

  11. just before I looked at the paycheck four $6755, I accept that my friend could realey making money in there spare time online.. there friend brother haz done this less than 22 months and resently cleard the morgage on their appartment and purchased a great new Acura. I went here,

    1. For god sakes, man, tell us: where?!?!?!?’cn

  12. That’s why standardized tests were started, because some high schools grade easier than others. But now they’re adding an “adversity score” to the SAT…..

    1. Had to look up the adversity score. It is independent of the actual scores and is only provided to colleges, not to the students themselves. It is based on the socioeconomic state of the student’s home town and school. Of course, it won’t take long for those scores to leak to every school that cares.

  13. My college graded on a curve, but it was pretty easy. 30 percent As, 60 percent Bs, 10 percent Cs, and you pretty much had to try to get a D or an F.

  14. “Not so anymore. Since the late 1960s, universities have increasingly suffered from grade inflation and an emphasis on ensuring that all admitted students graduate. At the same time, schools have become more liberal about accepting applicants based on unorthodox qualifications, from athletic ability to nonacademic accomplishments, disadvantageous backgrounds, and demonstrated social “awareness.””

    Since the late 1960’s colleges have increasingly been faced with the problem of how to keep seats filled once the Baby Boom was past. A student that has linked out is a student that isn’t paying fees. The ’50’s and ’60’s saw a lot of enthusiastic expansion in Higher Education…a trend that hasn’t ever really stopped in some sectors. But to keep that expansion supported, the colleges need to take in a lot of people who wouldn’t otherwise qualify, and KEEP them in. Why, if standards returned to a higher level a lot of Ph.Ds in Comparative Progressive Bullshit might actually have to WORK for a living.

  15. It’s no surprise a professor advocates for better education.

    What’s surprising, is Reason doesn’t say or add anything about the fact that governments have essentially been running the schools, and are entirely responsible for the dumbing down and grade inflation. How about advocating separating school and state the same way we separate church and state? There’s no reason for government to respect an educational institution or to prohibit them either. And there’s much to be said for a free market in education.

  16. Old joke.

    Four students who have blown off the course decide on an all-nighter to cram on a road trip. They get more involved in the case of beer, wake up late and miss the final exam.

    They decide on a plan of action. They show up in the professors office later and explain that they had rented a room to study and had a flat tire which was why they missed the exam.

    The professor says “ fine, you can make up the exam. Just come back tomorrow at 1:00”

    They do and he hands them each a sealed exam book and directs them to separate rooms. “Just come out when you have finished”

    They do so and open the books.

    There is one question.

    Which tire?

  17. The business model universities use is hard-broke from many perspectives. Not sure what “ability to get in” has to do with anything?

    What kind of business limits its number of customers? Were I running a U, I’d admit anyone whose check didn’t bounce. I wouldn’t kick failing students out. They can keep trying to pass for as long as they have money to pay for the service I’m providing.

    My reputation would not hinge on how hard I make it to get in, but on the quality of the graduate I provide to the employer who needs to hire him. Want a good job when you’re done? Employers value the skills we’ll provide you with, if you master them…

    1. I do not know how much it still exists.

      The mission of the university for many centuries is not just to produce useful employees.

    2. That’s kind of how private colleges work. That’s why I only trust grades from a state school. Most state schools don’t give a fuuuuck if they fail you.

  18. My college graded on a curve, but it was pretty easy. 30 percent As, 60 percent Bs, 10 percent Cs, and you pretty much had to try to get a D or an F.

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  19. Caltech does not calculate students’ freshmen year grades in their cumulation GPA. I’m sure other elite schools also do not. State schools do. Most students at elite schools, including Caltech, have someone making sure they don’t fall off the radar; not quite hand holding, but close enough. At a state school, to have to find your way. Your one tiny fish in a population of ten, twenty, thirty thousand. No one cares about you but you.

    Sorry, but I’ll take someone’s 3.0 in STEM from a state school over a 4.0 from an elite school.

    1. And I will recommend what I used to do as a campus recruiter: use grades (and specific classes) as a broad indicator, and then interview the shit out of the applicant (and back that up with candid faculty comments from a few profs I trusted).

  20. the idea that liberal arts is “easier” is not quite true. Over the years it has been dumbed down in ways that is harder to do with STEM subjects. After all there are only so many ways to do a math problem, but (arguably) many different ways to interpret a historical text. The problem is that the rigour has entirely dropped out of classical liberal arts education, including the insistence on competence in a foreign language – historically to the point that one would be expected to be able to read academic level texts in the language.

    This is a problem not only in the US but in many parts of the world and not only at the tertiary level, but also secondary schools.

    1. What’s left of the liberal arts in American academia have degenerated into pseudointellectual bullshit departments.


  21. Your comment about the difficulties of graduating from CalTech rang true. I entered as a freshman in 1966 intending to become a chemical engineer. My encounters with freshman chemistry convinced me otherwise, but exposure to the primitive time sharing service showed me a true career path in computer science. There being no such major at that time, I transferred after 3 semesters. I wonder sometimes what life would have brought had I found something of interest at CalTech and toughed it out.

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