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The Effects of an Anti-grade-Inflation Policy at Wellesley College


  • Kristin F. Butcher
  • Patrick J. McEwan
  • Akila Weerapana


Average grades in colleges and universities have risen markedly since the 1960s. Critics express concern that grade inflation erodes incentives for students to learn; gives students, employers, and graduate schools poor information on absolute and relative abilities; and reflects the quid pro quo of grades for better student evaluations of professors. This paper evaluates an anti-grade-inflation policy that capped most course averages at a B+. The cap was biding for high-grading departments (in the humanities and social sciences) and was not binding for low-grading departments (in economics and sciences), facilitating a difference-in-differences analysis. Professors complied with the policy by reducing compression at the top of the grade distribution. It had little effect on receipt of top honors, but affected receipt of magna cum laude. In departments affected by the cap, the policy expanded racial gaps in grades, reduced enrollments and majors, and lowered student ratings of professors.

Suggested Citation

  • Kristin F. Butcher & Patrick J. McEwan & Akila Weerapana, 2014. "The Effects of an Anti-grade-Inflation Policy at Wellesley College," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 28(3), pages 189-204, Summer.
  • Handle: RePEc:aea:jecper:v:28:y:2014:i:3:p:189-204
    Note: DOI: 10.1257/jep.28.3.189

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    Cited by:

    1. Talia Bar & Vrinda Kadiyali & Asaf Zussman, 2014. "Online Posting of Teaching Evaluations and Grade Inflation," Working papers 2014-29, University of Connecticut, Department of Economics.
    2. Julie Berry Cullen & Cory Koedel & Eric Parsons, 2021. "The Compositional Effect of Rigorous Teacher Evaluation on Workforce Quality," Education Finance and Policy, MIT Press, vol. 16(1), pages 7-41, Winter.
    3. Apostolos Filippas & John J. Horton & Joseph M. Golden, 2022. "Reputation Inflation," Marketing Science, INFORMS, vol. 41(4), pages 733-745, July.
    4. Kristin F. Butcher & Patrick McEwan & Akila Weerapana, 2023. "Women's Colleges and Economics Major Choice: Evidence from Wellesley College Applicants," Working Paper Series WP 2023-21, Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago.
    5. Waddell, Glen R. & Putz, Jenni, 2022. "What Can We Learn from Student Performance Measures? Identifying Treatment in the Presence of Curves and Letter Grades," IZA Discussion Papers 15321, Institute of Labor Economics (IZA).
    6. Donghun Cho & Joonmo Cho, 2017. "Does More Accurate Knowledge of Course Grade Impact Teaching Evaluation?," Education Finance and Policy, MIT Press, vol. 12(2), pages 224-240, Spring.
    7. Kristin F. Butcher & Patrick McEwan & Akila Weerapana, 2022. "Making the (Letter) Grade: The Incentive Effects of Mandatory Pass/Fail Courses," Working Paper Series WP 2022-55, Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago.
    8. Nordin, Martin & Heckley, Gawain & Gerdtham, Ulf, 2019. "The impact of grade inflation on higher education enrolment and earnings," Economics of Education Review, Elsevier, vol. 73(C).
    9. Veronica Minaya, 2020. "Do Differential Grading Standards Across Fields Matter for Major Choice? Evidence from a Policy Change in Florida," Research in Higher Education, Springer;Association for Institutional Research, vol. 61(8), pages 943-965, December.
    10. Arpita Patnaik & Matthew J. Wiswall & Basit Zafar, 2020. "College Majors," NBER Working Papers 27645, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    11. Sam Allgood & William B. Walstad & John J. Siegfried, 2015. "Research on Teaching Economics to Undergraduates," Journal of Economic Literature, American Economic Association, vol. 53(2), pages 285-325, June.
    12. Dirk S. Yandell, 2017. "Grade Expectations and Overconfidence: Is Economics Different?," Journal for Economic Educators, Middle Tennessee State University, Business and Economic Research Center, vol. 17(2), pages 18-28, Fall.
    13. Berezvai, Zombor & Lukáts, Gergely Dániel & Molontay, Roland, 2019. "A pénzügyi ösztönzők hatása az egyetemi oktatók osztályozási gyakorlatára [How financially rewarding student evaluation may affect grading behaviour. Evidence from a natural experiment]," Közgazdasági Szemle (Economic Review - monthly of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences), Közgazdasági Szemle Alapítvány (Economic Review Foundation), vol. 0(7), pages 733-750.
    14. Novik, Vitaliy, 2022. "The role of learning in returns to college major: evidence from 2.8 million reviews of 150,000 professors," MPRA Paper 115431, University Library of Munich, Germany.
    15. Gorry, Devon, 2017. "The impact of grade ceilings on student grades and course evaluations: Evidence from a policy change," Economics of Education Review, Elsevier, vol. 56(C), pages 133-140.
    16. Griffith, Amanda L. & Sovero, Veronica, 2021. "Under pressure: How faculty gender and contract uncertainty impact students’ grades," Economics of Education Review, Elsevier, vol. 83(C).

    More about this item

    JEL classification:

    • A22 - General Economics and Teaching - - Economic Education and Teaching of Economics - - - Undergraduate
    • I23 - Health, Education, and Welfare - - Education - - - Higher Education; Research Institutions


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