In 2002, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences published a paper arguing that the fundamental means we use to evaluate rising students—by quantitative measures such as grades and qualitative measures such as recommendation letters—have substantially changed over time. Studies on grade inflation covering the years 1960 to 1997 found measurable GPA increases in every institutional type, greater percentages of grades awarded in the A range, and lower percentages of grades falling below the B range (20). The Vietnam War is often cited as a beginning of the grade inflation trend, with faculty awarding students unearned grades in order to keep them from dropping out of school and becoming subject to military service. Other cited factors contributing to this trend include curriculum changes that reflect the changing tenor of the culture and the workplace, the increasing use of student evaluations (with critics arguing that faculty give easy grades to gain popularity), the increasing use of adjuncts, and the greater number of students in college aggressively seeking the grail of post-graduate education. Finally, a trend towards students viewing themselves as “consumers,” with schools as their service providers, also contributes to the problem. One study in 1999 found that large proportions of students in five different courses saw grade inflation as the norm—i.e., even students who self-reported doing ‘average’ work still expected Bs or As (21). Put simply, many students expect to be given high grades, even when delivering mediocre performance.
Certainly, the issue of grade inflation has drawn significant academic attention, and in some cases even new policy initiatives, over the last few decades. Since 2000, the schools that have introduced policies to curb grade inflation include Columbia University, Harvard, the Washington University School of Law in St. Louis, and Princeton University. Princeton University’s policy, in particular, drew much attention in 2004, with the Dean of the College Nancy Malkiel citing grade inflation as “an intractable national problem” and calling for faculty “to give students the carefully calibrated assessment they deserve of the quality of their course work and independent work” (22). The Princeton proposal called for programs and departments to ration grades more carefully, awarding less than 35% of grades in the A range, and less than 55% in the A range for independent work by juniors and seniors. The proposal gained almost 2/3 support in a faculty vote (23). Five years after the policy was implemented, in 2009, Princeton reported marked progress in curbing grade inflation, with about an 8 percent drop in the number of As awarded. A statement issued by the Faculty Committee on Grading noted that “These results confirm once again that with clear intent and concerted effort, a university faculty can bring down the inflated grades that—left uncontrolled—devalue the educational achievements of American college students” (24).
Meanwhile, a trend parallel to grade inflation is evident in letters of recommendation written by faculty, whether written for students or for peers. Both students and faculty expect and sometimes pressure their recommenders to write glowing evaluations, candor is replaced by gloss, and qualitative distinctions become blurred. As one writer puts it, commenting on letters written for tenure and promotion candidates, “Puffery is rampant. Evasion abounds” (25).
As discussed in Sissela Bok’s fascinating book, Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life, the act of writing an inflated recommendation has become sanctioned simply by pervasive practice. The writer’s usual reasoning is this: “It helps someone, while injuring no one in particular, and balances out similar gestures on the part of many others” (26). In fact, most evaluators feel that if they do not conform to an “inflated set of standards” within a “system where all recommendations are customarily exaggerated” (26), they do their students unintentional harm.
Though the practice of writing inflated letters of reference is harder to quantify and less studied than the issue of grade inflation, the backlash trend against inflated letters of praise seems to be taking the same path: Scholarship jurors are urging more candor that will provide clearer distinctions among candidates, selection committees are calling for more context about program standards so they may better assess a candidate’s worthiness, and letter reviewers are growing more vocal about their need for specificity and credible information. In short, readers want informative letters they can trust.
What then are the best practices we should use amidst these trends, while acknowledging the student’s need for an effective, helpful letter of recommendation? While recognizing that we work in an academic culture where inflated letters are common, our best practices include considerations such as praising (even criticizing) in ways that lend credibility, and understanding the audience’s need for a letter that informs in a way that provides a best fit between candidate and opportunity. The challenge and charge is to reduce inflationary rhetoric while still honoring and serving the student’s needs.
From blog sites to academic articles, the debate over grade inflation and inflated letters of recommendation is popular online. Here are two websites for further study: