Struggles in Admissions Practices Part 1: Grade Inflation

Mar 9, 2023 | PA Admissions Corner

By Jim Pearson and Dr. Scott Massey

Welcome back to PA Admissions Corner. Last time, we took a look at statistics regarding the physician assistant education industry. We provided some insights into the nature of the applicant pool and where your PA program fits into the bigger picture.

In that issue, we touched on applicants’ average non-science and science GPA. Of course, GPA is one of the primary metrics used in accepting or rejecting applications.

With the average PA applicant GPA at 3.5 (non-science) and 3.3 (science), many of your applicants are certain to have some impressively high numbers, leading your admissions committee to believe that these bright bulbs have studied hard and worked diligently to achieve what few others could. Unless, of course, they have been the beneficiary of grade inflation. Grading is a relative measurement, subject to plenty of tampering and interpretation from those doing the measuring.

What is Grade Inflation?

Grade inflation has become a major concern over the last decade or so in undergraduate education. It means exactly what it implies: that better grades are being handed out overall, not because students are getting smarter but because schools and teachers are expecting less. Unfortunately, a large percentage of undergraduate institutions grant their students high grades (3.4 GPA and higher) in individual courses even if the competency level of many of these students does not accurately reflect that high grade.

For example, a Forbes article published October 30, 2019 cites evidence of a crisis level of grade inflation among colleges and universities: “In the early 1960s 15% of all college grades nationwide were A’s. Unfortunately, as of 2019 now 45% of all grades awarded by colleges in the United States are A’s.”

In a paper published in 2014 by the Center for Higher Education (“Combating the Other Inflation: Arresting the cancer of college grade inflation”), there were several key points raised about the impact of this alarming development. Conclusions drawn from the article include:

1. Differences in grading practices between instructors cause biases in student evaluations of teaching.
2. Student evaluations of teaching are not reliable indicators of teaching effectiveness and account for only a small proportion of the variance in student learning from student to student and course to course.
3. Higher grade distributions cannot be associated with higher levels of student achievement.
4. Differences in grading practices have a substantial impact on student enrollments and cause fewer students to enroll in fields that grade more stringently.
5. Grading practices differ systematically

This phenomenon of inflated grades for undergraduate students has been demonstrated in public and private institutions alike. Even highly selective elite colleges like Dartmouth have demonstrated an increase in overall GPA in undergraduates from 3.04 to 3.25 over the past decade.


Causes of Grade Inflation

Grades are theoretically meant to represent a bell curve of student performance. A, C is an average grade, a B or A roughly approximates one or two standard deviations up from that average, and a D or F should be around one or two standard deviations down. In that bell curve, most students would earn a C grade, a few would earn a B or D. An A or an F would theoretically only be earned by students who significantly overperformed or significantly underperformed relative to the class. Classes of human beings don’t conform perfectly to a bell curve, however, as theory is only theory and reality is something else.

Yet, at some point in undergraduate education, it was decided that an “average” grade was unacceptable. It seems that now, a C looks like failure, a B implies a lack of initiative, and As are often what students expect—and earn—for meeting a course’s minimum demands. There are multiple reasons for grade inflation, none of which seem to stand alone:

  1. Parents assume across the board that their children must go to a 4-year university or success will elude them, and universities demand good GPAs. With this perceived requirement, students and their parents are seen as customers of the school rather than seekers of knowledge.
  2. Schools compete with each other and tout their value by boasting their students’ excellent grades, applying pressure to ensure those grades stay high.
  3. Departments of education arbitrarily raise standards or re-brand grades without changing the educational program. Performance that used to warrant a C now warrants a B. This might benefit departments where funding relies on student performance, but it has no benefits for anyone wishing to use those grades as a reliable measure of competence.
  4. Teachers who are characterized as “hard graders” can be stereotyped as unfeeling and even cruel to their students. A bad grade is considered discouraging, as if the student doesn’t even have a fighting chance to succeed. But the concept of a “hard grader” is subjective and changing. To the schools, the “hard grader” is now the one who doesn’t pass all of their students; to the parents and students, the “hard grader” is the one who didn’t assign the desired grade.
  5. Teachers give out better grades, often unconsciously, if they feel that they are teaching outside their expertise or if they are working in a disorganized program. They will bump grades up just to give students the benefit of the doubt or to compensate for a bad system.

The various reasons for grade inflation raise legitimate concerns about equivalency of student knowledge in basic sciences, which are intrinsically important subjects to incoming PA students. As PA program directors, can we really trust that A-grades in the basic sciences represent a student’s true competency? Unfortunately, we can’t.

Research in PA education has demonstrated that science GPA has little use in predicting student success, further indicating that a comprehensive holistic data-based admissions process is essential.


GPA Breakdown

Grade Inflation raises major questions about the role of GPA in the selection of PA students. There are several ways to look at an applicant’s GPAs. By specifying which grades, courses, or time periods matter more, we can get a better idea of where our applicants show their strengths.

GPA — A numerical value calculating the grade-point-average (GPA) for an individual student over a period of time that is usually classified in years or clock hours

GPA CASPA Science — The numerical value listed within the CASPA application system, which calculates only a student’s science-based undergraduate course GPA

GPA Last 60-Clock Hours — The numerical value that calculates the GPA of the student’s last 60 clock hours of their undergraduate education. This allows students to overcome a less-than-stellar freshman year, for example.

Your program may require a minimum GPA or science GPA for applications to be considered. But we discovered in our work with PA programs that most ideal candidates do not have “perfect” or even excessively high GPAs; they are more likely to have overall and science GPAs in the 3.3-3.5 range, and these are hardly the only components for success.

These traits are just as indicative of success:

  • The student held a job throughout their undergraduate education.
  • The applicant has overcome adversity.

And that’s not all – predictors of success can be as simple, and uncontrollable, as these:

  • The student is 23 to 30 years old.
  • The student lives within 150 miles of your PA program.


What to do About Grade Inflation?

The first and best way to deflect the perils of grade inflation is to be aware that it exists. Look at your PA program and ask if your admissions process relies too heavily on GPA as a potential measure of success. Adjusting your admissions rubric to account for more of the things that are really important to success will allow your program to pinpoint, interview, and accept applicants based on real-world knowledge and experience instead of subjective numbers alone.


In the next Issue of PA Admissions Corner, we’ll continue our four-part series on Struggles in Admissions Practices by examining the lack of applicants’ didactic preparedness. What do we do when we find our applicants unprepared for the realities of a medical education? We’ll talk about how to avoid accepting students who are unable to handle the rigors of our program and help those students who need it.


To your admissions and program success,

Jim Pearson, CEO
Exam Master

Dr. Scott Massey Ph.D., PA-C
Scott Massey LLC

If you are in need of admissions support and services for your PA program, we can help.

Jim Pearson and Dr. Scott Massey have helped hundreds of educational institutions and programs improve their admissions outcomes.

Exam Master supports Physician Assistant Educational Institutions with the following services:

  • Admissions Support Services
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Learn more about Exam Master’s products and services and how we support PA education by reaching out to [email protected]

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