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.

*CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misstated the name of the website.