Grade inflation, however, lifted all boats. The above-average students at these schools got in 96 percent of the time; average students were accepted at a 91 percent rate. Even the below-average students were winners. They had a 30 percent chance of being accepted, faring better than even above-average students at schools with rigorous grading. And this happened even though the participants were experts—real college admissions officials—with detailed information about the applicants’ situations.
“The school, the situation—that has a big effect on your probability of being accepted. And it’s a dramatic difference,” said Zachariah Sharek, a coauthor on the study. “These are huge jumps.”
Second, to prove that these findings weren’t just theoretical, the researchers analyzed real-world admissions data. In looking at more than 30,000 applications to four selective MBA programs, they found that depending on whether students attended a grade-inflated school, a median one, or one with low grading norms, their respective GPAs averaged 3.57, 3.25, and 2.93. Average students at those three types of institutions—after controlling for demographic and school quality differences—got in at respective rates of 32 percent, 22 percent, and just 15 percent. Grade inflation, clearly, was making a big difference in these students’ futures.
“It threatens the meritocracy of our society,” Swift said. “In the admissions context, we feel like it’s important that the best students get the most opportunities and can move up and contribute to our world. Our data shows that doesn’t happen, to the extent that some great people end up in disadvantageous situations.”
The implications aren’t limited to academia; Swift and his colleagues found a similar tendency in the workplace. They asked 129 working professionals with experience making promotions to imagine they were airline executives. Their job: evaluating hypothetical workers, half of whom ran airports that were historically punctual and the other half of whom ran airports that ran late. Even when those running the late airports were above average—or achieving on-time departures despite difficult odds—they received lower performance ratings than their above-average counterparts at the easier, on-time airports.
What’s happening, Swift says, is that our brains are taking a shortcut. Someone with a high GPA must be smart. Someone running an on-time airport must be efficient. “That’s not a terrible thing to conclude,” he says. But life is often more complex than that—a reality that can trip up even experts like the admissions officer, who presumably knows that grading standards vary. “It’s really hard for people to look away from that glaring high number or that glaring low number of raw performance,” said Swift. “You see a high GPA, you can’t help but want to accept it—even if you know that’s the function of a really favorable situation.”
In order to adjust for this flaw in our decision-making, the authors suggest a few possible solutions. Colleges, they argue, need to start making clear each student’s class rank. Sharek argues that these percentiles should appear on college transcripts, broken down by major and perhaps even by each individual class. And Swift takes it one step further. Perhaps it’s time, he says, to discard GPAs as a measure of talent altogether. “In our lab studies, we gave out GPA and the relative performance,” Swift said. “And they only attend to the GPA.”
But such changes, he admits, aren’t likely to come fast enough to help students graduating this year. Students with lower GPAs, from schools with more rigorous grading, should do everything they can, Swift said, to show to potential employers or graduate schools just how they stack up against their peers.
In the meantime, some college applicants will no doubt be tempted try to game the system, choosing schools with the most lenient grading standards. But Nicholas Epley would advise against that decision. Smart admissions officers, he says, could review studies like this one, wake up to the fact that they’re overvaluing grade-inflated students, and change their behavior accordingly. “An admissions committee could solve this problem in less than a minute,” said Epley, a professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. “The solution is simple enough.”
All it would take is a formula, he said, calculating an applicant’s performance relative to the school’s average performance. And a little awareness wouldn’t hurt, either. “The problem is overconfidence in our own judgment,” he said, “and I think the only way to remedy that is to recognize that we’re not as smart as think we are.” Even if those straight As on our resumes look really, really impressive.
Freelance writer Keith O’Brien is a former staff writer for the Globe and the author of the book “Outside Shot,” chronicling one town’s lonely quest for basketball greatness. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.