To get a C from professor Jerry Hough, a student would have to consciously avoid doing the coursework.
Hough, James B. Duke professor of political science, said he does not often venture far from the upper-end of the grading scale, with about 40 percent of students earning A's and 55 percent earning B's. But Hough-along with numerous other faculty members-is only grading in line with the average undergraduate grade point average at Duke, a 3.44 or a B-plus.
"If you compare the grades now with what they were in the 70s, there is no comparison," Hough said. "In social science courses, the students really think a B-minus or a C-plus is a failing grade."
In 1960, the average undergraduate GPA at Duke was 2.41. As of 2007, that number has climbed to 3.44, according to gradeinflation.com, a Web site containing grading data compiled by Stuart Rojstaczer, a former associate professor of hydrology at Duke, who analyzes grading trends across American universities.
This is approximately the difference between a C-plus and a B-plus, a full letter grade.
"Different faculty feel differently about how grading should work," Provost Peter Lange said. "Personally, I'm somewhat troubled by the continuing trend but there are multiple factors driving it."
Duke is not alone on this issue. For more than 40 years, grades have risen across universities nationwide. The (Raleigh) News and Observer reported Jan. 25 that 82 percent of all grades given to undergraduate students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill were A's and B's in Fall 2007, and that the average GPA was 3.2. In 1967, the average GPA at UNC was 2.49, according to gradeinflation.com.
Rising grades, however, are notable at Duke and among top-ranked institutions. Back in 1966, for instance, 22 percent of the grades Harvard University gave to its undergraduates were in the A range, according to a 2002 report by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences assessing grade inflation. In the 2001-2002 academic year, A's and A-minuses accounted for 51 percent of Harvard's grades, with B-minuses or lower accounting for only 12 percent of grades.
Similarly, in the 2000-2001 academic year, 48.9 percent of grades at Duke were A's of any sort, and 19.6 percent were B-minuses or lower, according to a 2003 Provost report. Duke-specific data for previous years were not stated in the report.
Professor of Chemistry Steven Baldwin, who has been teaching at Duke since 1970, said he has noticed that grades have been increasing throughout his career. During the first five or six years he started teaching organic chemistry, he recalls that the average was about a C or a C-plus, with no more than 35 percent of the class receiving any types of A's or B's. Currently, the average is a B or a B-minus, with 55 to 60 percent of students receiving B-minuses and above.
"When I was an [undergraduate] at Dartmouth [College], a C wasn't a great grade, but it was OK," he said. "It was a gentleman's C. Sort of a gentleman's B-plus is what's OK now."
Echoing this sentiment, several students said they could expect a grade within a certain range in many of their classes if they invested at least a minimum amount of work.
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"I feel as long as I put in a certain amount of effort, I can always get a B-minus," senior Abhinav Kapur said. "I don't think any of my professors would fail their students."
Searching for explanations
Grade inflation-a rise in students' GPA over a period of time without a corresponding rise in student quality-is an issue that universities have been struggling to address and even to properly identify.
Pointing to an increasingly competitive student body, some Duke administrators argued that the increase in average GPAs closely correlates with increasing average standardized test scores.
"Our SAT scores and quality of our students has just gone up and up and up," said Lee Baker, in his first year as dean of academic affairs of Trinity College of Arts and Sciences. "With the quality and caliber of our students, you are going to get good grades. There doesn't have to be a bell curve for every class."
Although SAT scores-which are a measure of student quality-have improved at Duke, Lange said they have not risen enough to account for the accompanying rise in GPA. Based on regression remodeling, the 2003 Provost report concluded that increasing SAT scores reasonably explain about half of the GPA increase seen between 1982 and 2002.
"I honestly think there are many pressures, but among them-today's Duke students are, by independent criteria like SATs, better academically prepared than were [their] counterparts 50 years ago-so some rise in grades if based on absolute criteria (rather than comparative ones) is likely, and not necessarily a 'bad thing,'" George McLendon, dean of Trinity College and dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, wrote in an e-mail.
But Rojstaczer said increasing SAT scores account for even less of the increase in GPA. Rojstaczer said GPA increased by 0.37 points between 1982 and 2002, whereas SAT scores rose by approximately 80 points, when recentering is taken into account. An 80-point change in SAT scores can only be expected to explain a slight change in GPA, he added. In his recent paper, "Variability in Grading of Undergraduates in American Colleges and Universities," Rojstaczer found that a 100-point increase in SAT scores correlated with a 0.1 boost in GPA.
"It is simply unbelievable that anywhere near half of the observed increase in GPA could be explained on the basis of such a small SAT change," Rojstaczer wrote in an e-mail. "No one anywhere has observed such a thing."
Attributing rising GPAs to corresponding increases in SATs is also problematic because SAT scores of students entering college nationwide have declined over the last 30 years, according to a Feb. 18 report by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni entitled "Measuring Up: The Problem of Grade Inflation and What Trustees Can Do."
Because admissions to Duke and its peer institutions has become progressively more competitive, some argue that higher grades may be an indication of more academically talented students, even if SAT scores do not indicate any significant improvement.
Indeed, Rojstaczer said the average GPA at Duke has gone up more than that of any of its peers since 1960, which is in part reflective of the changing composition of its student body. That Duke's GPA has risen at such a rate is a testament to the University's comparatively low grades in the 60s, not to its high grades relative to similar institutions today, he added.
But Rojstaczer, along with Henry Rosovsky, former acting president and dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard, said the extent to which grades have increased at Duke and similar institutions is much greater than any conceivable improvement in the quality of the student body. Accounting for this increase in aptitude-Rojstaczer said about one-third of students are deserving of A-minuses and above in any given class-he said the average GPA should be around a 3.1.
Moreover, Rosovsky, who co-authored the 2002 report by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, added that grades began rising dramatically at a time during which it would be difficult to argue that student aptitude had improved.
Earning the grade
Anything that would detract from the meaning of a grade is bad, said Alvin Crumbliss, dean of the natural sciences and professor of chemistry. And if grades did not rise in proportion to the quality of students, then grade inflation would be a problem. If there is a comparable increase in the caliber of students, however, then there should be a corresponding increase in student GPA, he said.
Dr. Nancy Major, associate professor of radiology and evolutionary anthropology, agrees that if there are many students who merit high marks, they should be rewarded accordingly. Major, who has been teaching undergraduates since 2004, said she gives mostly A's, an occasional B and does not recall ever having given a C.
"I teach a very different kind of class," she said. "On the first day I tell everyone what's expected of them to tell them how to get a decent grade in the class. And for me a decent grade in the class is an A."
In contrast, some faculty members said an improvement in student quality does not merit higher grades. For example, in acknowledging that students have gotten stronger since his arrival, Baldwin said grades should be distributed among the current student population and he would like to use more of a broad grading scale.
Despite concerns at Duke and universities nationwide, some administrators hold that grade inflation is not a problem that needs to be amended immediately, but a subject that should be discussed among members of the Duke community.
"The gradual rise in temperatures leading to global warming-that's a crisis," said Steve Nowicki, vice provost and dean of undergraduate education. "But the gradual rising of grades in American college education is an issue we have to think about but not a crisis that will destroy the system."