Cheating and Grade Inflation on Campuses: Where Things Stand

Posted By Derek Johnson on July 26, 2016 at 5:46 pm
Cheating and Grade Inflation on Campuses: Where Things Stand

To our readers: Experts decry the rise of cheating and grade inflation on college campuses, but few have delved into the reasons behind possible solutions to those problems. In this first of a two-part examination, GoodCall writer Derek Johnson outlines the problems. Part 2, which we’ll publish tomorrow, takes a deeper look into the causes and possible solutions.


Many consider college the first transitional step towards modern adulthood. From living on campus to tackling more nuanced intellectual concepts to confronting failure, higher education has largely been structured to force students out of the protective bubble of childhood and K-12 education and invite them to start confronting the harsh realities of the world beyond.

However, two seemingly contradictory trends during the past 30 years threaten to undermine that perception: well-documented grade inflation at the collegiate level and rising rates of academic cheating among incoming students. At first glance it appears something of a paradox: in an era when it has never been easier to attain high grades, more students than ever appear to be risking discipline or expulsion by cheating.

Technology advances fuel cheating and grade inflation

College professors and experts paint a more complex picture. In general, newer technologies such as smart phones and social media often were cited as a contributing factor nudging students toward more cheating, as were the rising cost and consumer-centric focus of traditional higher education institutions.

“There’s more at stake for students. They’re investing a lot of money in addition to time, and a lot of them are expecting a payoff,” says Jon Baumunk, professor of business and economics at Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA. “To pay off, they need to get good grades, and the incentives to cheat are just that much greater than they were before.”

A lack of innovation on the part of colleges and universities also was blamed for a seeming disconnect between tenured professors and a newer generation of tech-savvy students who use the Internet and technology to help solve virtually every problem they encounter.

Finally, one preeminent expert of grade inflation believes it is not only related to increased rates of cheating but that the two trends are in fact helping to fuel each other’s rise. Collectively, the dual problems threaten to undermine the credibility of traditional higher education and may affect the ethical decisions and behavior of a generation of Americans well after they graduate college.

Cheating and grade inflation have been rising for years

Retired professor and researcher Donald McCabe is one of the godfathers of modern research on cheating in higher education and co-author of multiple studies throughout the 1990s. McCabe found that between 1963 and 1993, self-reported cheating rose significantly and demonstrably among all demographic groups. This was true for smaller forms of cheating like unauthorized collaboration with other students on class assignments to more serious incidents such as cheating on tests or exams.

“With increasing competition for the most desired positions in the job market and for the few coveted places available at the nation’s leading business, law and medical schools, today’s undergraduates experience considerable pressure to do well,” McCabe wrote in his study “Cheating in Academics: A Decade of Research.”

Individual factors such as family income, race, gender, and academic achievement were found to have little to no effect on student cheating. What did affect students decision-making were “contextual factors,” such as the behavior and perceptions of their peers and the attitudes of university faculty and administrators about cheating. In short, when students cheat and seemingly suffer no consequences, it increases the likelihood that non-cheaters will follow their lead.

“Students who might otherwise complete their work honestly observe this phenomenon and convince themselves they cannot afford to be disadvantaged by students who cheat and go unreported or unpunished. Although many find it distasteful, they too begin cheating to ‘level the playing field,’” McCabe wrote.

More research confirms grade inflation findings

Author and researcher Stuart Rojstaczer started looking into grade inflation in 2003 and by 2010 had published two papers and collected data and grading tendencies from 170 schools. His website now contains historical data for more than 400 schools, with some going back to the 1940s. What he found was that a slow tectonic shift had taken place in the way teachers handed out grades.

Before 1963, less than 20 percent of all students received a grade of “A” or better. But during the next 10 years, that percentage shot up to more than 30 percent. By 2013, nearly half of students (45 percent) were getting A’s, making it the most popular grade in college. This has come mainly at the expense of “C” students, who made up approximately 35 percent of the grades in 1961 but less than 15 percent in 2012.

What was behind this sudden surge in high marks? Rojstaczer cites two events: the Vietnam War and the consumer model of higher education that took off shortly after. During the early ’60s and ’70s researchers such as Michigan State professor Arvo Juola found that the Vietnam War “formed the origins” of grade inflation, as colleges became increasingly “loath to award low grades to male students lest they be drafted into the war.”

After the war ended, the frequency of A’s dipped slightly until the mid-1980’s, right around the time that tuition prices began skyrocketing at many universities. As the cost of college mushroomed, it coincided with an increasing perception within higher education and among new enrollees that students who rack up tens of thousands of dollars in debt deserve a return on their investment. This perception, known as the consumer model of higher education, was responsible for the second boom in A grades.

McCabe’s data matches up with the perceptions of some in academia, including Dr. Drew Stevens, an adjunct professor, author and business marketing executive who has taught at private and for-profit universities. Anecdotally, Stevens said he has observed an increasing lethargic attitude in his classes from students, with work being turned in significantly late or not at all.

Grade inflation claims aren’t new

While this type of criticism leveled toward young academics is nothing new, Stevens said many students now seem to believe that the exorbitant money they are paying upfront should outweigh the results of one bad mid-term or final. “There are some students that are going on the notion: “I pay, so therefore I am to receive,” Stevens says.

Baumunk seconds those thoughts, citing a “pay your fee and get your B” mentality that has crept into higher education. “I think they feel they are entitled to more. The question is what should that more be: a grade or the quality of instruction where learning really occurs,” Baumunk says. “We’re seeing too much focus on the outcome, not the process. The outcome needs to be that you walk out school with skills that make you more marketable and make you a better citizen.”

Rojstaczer believes that grade inflation and cheating may be fueling each other. As grades get compressed at the top, he says, changes in a cumulative GPA of a few hundredths of a point take on an increased importance. Slight improvements in academic performance can be the difference in moving up significantly up in class rank, graduating with honors or maintaining the necessary minimum GPA requirements that come with many college scholarships.

Coming tomorrow: Some possible solutions.

Derek Johnson
Derek Johnson is a writer, journalist and editor based out of Virginia. He received a Master’s degree in Public Policy at George Mason University and a bachelor’s degree in Communication from Hofstra University.

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