Why those proud of VCU’s grade inflation have it wrong

Illustration by Marleigh Culver

Colin Hannifin

Illustration by Marleigh Culver

My email and Facebook news feed have been figuratively blowing up these past couple days, with dozens of people sharing the same link to a study that found that VCU is an incredibly tough place to get As.

It has sparked discussion, arguments and pride, as we get the pleasure of saying that VCU’s a tougher place to get As than the big in-state schools, like the University of Virginia, Virginia Tech, and William and Mary. While public discussion and debate are welcome and encouraged, there shouldn’t be boasting – and not just for the cause of humility.

Over the past several weeks, there has been increased discussion over this more-than-a-year-old study. VCU was ranked as one of the 16 hardest schools in which to earn an A, contrary to popular beliefs about the university. Sure, other schools may be harder to get into, students boast, but it’s harder to stay in VCU.

This attitude makes no sense. If you read into the study, you find that it’s primarily based on average GPAs at the university.

Wealthy students at private universities tend to have higher GPAs, according to the study, which isn’t exactly surprising. It seems that because VCU has one of the lowest average GPAs, well below the national average, it’s deemed an institution in which it is hard to earn an A. The study seems to completely ignore the confounding variables that are undoubtedly at work, both at VCU and elsewhere.

For instance, let’s look at attrition. How many students do you know that were at VCU at one point, but left without graduating? Perhaps it wasn’t the right fit, perhaps they dropped out or perhaps they couldn’t afford the tuition.

These are all valid reasons, but when students mentally check out and fail, their grades drop, and so does the average GPA.

How often does this happen at the more prestigious institutions? VCU’s freshman retention rate is a disappointing 83 percent, compared to ones in the high-to-mid 90s for UVA and William and Mary.

Furthermore, what is the point of a university? It’s to prepare students for the professional world, to enable them to graduate with a good education, secure a suitable job and live their life outside of the confines of college.

Where does grade inflation – the point of the study – fall into this?

Yes, students should be graded fairly and equitably, but just because more people get Cs and Ds (and worse) at VCU does not mean the rest of us are better prepared than our counterparts at other universities. If anything, it would indicate that we were likely less pushed than those from other colleges, and perhaps less prepared.

I’m not trying to say that we shouldn’t have pride in our school and in our fine education. VCU has a lot of which to be proud. We have one of the most diverse programs and student bodies you can find, our basketball team went to the Final Four just a few months ago, and doctors at the Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU just separated 20-month-old conjoined twins. We have a number of nationally ranked programs, from the School of the Arts to the Brandcenter to the School of Education to our MBA program.

There’s so much in which we can take pride – atypically low GPA is not one of them.

[sws_grey_box]Read the original CBS article here [/sws_grey_box]


  1. “Not all of them have particularly low GPAs compared to national averages, but there are schools where the talent level is so high that one should expect A’s to be more prevalent. We’ve taken talent level into account in the creation of this Sweet Sixteen.”

  2. “How often does this happen at the more prestigious institutions? VCU’s freshman retention rate is a disappointing 83 percent, compared to ones in the high-to-mid 90s for UVA and William and Mary.”

    This statement pretty much negates the rest of your article. Maybe the freshman retention rate is low because THE SCHOOL GRADES HARDER which would discourage students to continue their studies? Point of the original article, private schools want to keep students for financial reasons. Public universities grade harder because it doesn’t benefit them in the same way.

  3. Madeleine–Yes, I read that sentence in the study. But seeing as I never saw an explanation of how they took “talent” into account, it makes little impact to my argument.

    Leigh–The problem with that statement is that it is invariably colored by your own experience. You may have found it easy to get As, others have not.

    Rick–I don’t think it negates the entire argument, though you are correct in that it is cause for further research. It’s a chicken-and-egg debate: does hard grading push down GPAs and force students to drop out, or do students achieving low grades and dropping out push down our GPA and make it look like we’re hard graders? This study certainly doesn’t answer that question. Furthermore, UVA and William and Mary are both public institutions, and still maintain a far superior freshman retention rate.

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