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Irrationality has led us to take ill-conceived shortcuts. These shortcuts, designed to satiate immediate desires, have left us in a weary state, begging for further shortcuts. But when everyone takes the same easy path, the benefit of taking such a route is nullified, leaving us back to square one. And just to drive the point home, a cramped shortcut becomes the new ‘longcut’. Grade inflation serves as a paradigm for this.
In the most generic sense, grade inflation occurs when your teacher or professor mimicks Oprah by generously awarding you free grades. Most schools in the west, and now increasingly in the east, follow such a munificent system. Did you deserve those grades? Would you even care if you didn’t? It doesn’t matter, you’re getting them anyway. This is clearly not a ‘winner takes all’ system because everyone is a winner by default. There exists no cut throat competition, no sleepless nights (for teachers too) and no pressure. But this is where the problem lies.

Grade inflation is a lot like socialism; there is no incentive to work harder because everyone is treated the same way. There is hardly any basis for differentiation between someone who goes the extra mile and someone who doesn’t. This is not only a ‘nail in the shoe’ for diligent students, but also for top tier colleges and institutions who have no choice but to gamble in order to pick a handful from a crowd of seeming equals.
The issue is further exacerbated when one group of schools follows grade inflation, and the other doesn’t. Put yourself in the shoes of an employer. Needless to say, you would obviously choose a student with straight A’s than a student with a mix of A’s, B’s and C’s. But you wouldn’t be bothered to find out how the former student obtained those utopian grades. In your mind, that student is truly a standout, when he may not, in reality, be so. Who knows, you may have just employed a mediocre teen, but at the same time, denied employment for someone who actually deserved it.

Now the most intuitive lesson from all of this, is to completely strip grade inflation off. But this cannot be done one school at a time. When Princeton, in 2004, decided to lower the number of A’s given to students from 64% to 35%, it didn’t end the way it was intended to. Princeton became a war zone, with students putting in countless hours of work, denying any form of collaborative study or assistance, just to stay on top of the new ‘hierarchy’. The students who didn’t manage to get the A’s, despite their sincere efforts, ended up looking inferior vis-a-vis other college students subject to grade inflation. Hence the board of directors at Princeton decided to revoke their earlier decision.
Remuneration, given in the absence of persistence, holds no value. In other words, getting a 4.0 GPA without putting any effort is tantamount to being awarded chocolate, for eating chocolate. Such a system will only promote lethargy and poor work ethics. While I am not advocating for a complete shutdown of the system, I do believe there is a need for every institution to engage in progressive grade deflation, which does not stir everything out of control. Students will be able to cope up with the subtle yet evident changes in the marking scheme, and adjust their study habits accordingly.

Of course, extending a shortcut to accomodate everybody is an unpopular decision; one that many colleges will show the cold shoulder to. But it is the only way we can achieve an egalitarian system, where those who come out at the top, earn their place of being.

(Photo credit: http://www.gradeinflation.com/figure1.gif)

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