How high school grade inflation affects admissions and recruitment

March 27, 2018
  • AACRAO Annual Meeting

Grade inflation has long been a known issue – a quick internet search will yield hundreds if not thousands of articles on the topic. But how quantifiable is it? Is it necessarily a bad thing? And most importantly for admissions officers, how does it affect your recruiting and admissions decisions? Emily Shaw from College Board, John Barnhill from Florida State University, and Michael Horwitz, College Board, tackled these questions and more in their popular Monday session at the AACRAO 2018 Annual Meeting.


Hurwitz defined grade inflation succinctly, stating that it is essentially an increase in grades in the absence of true increase in academic preparedness or performance. Using National Assessment for Education Progress (NAEP) scores for both English and math from 1990 until 2012, the average score has remained relatively flat. Indeed, Barnhill reported that despite an increase in admitted high school GPA from 3.8 to 4.2 over a 10 year period, first year GPA has remained essentially unchanged. On a national level there is now a notable and observable decrease in GPA variance in high school GPA.

Dealing with Inflation

With mounting pressure to not only fill seats, but to fill those seats with high academic performers, Barnhill had to think about innovative ways to accurately assess the academic preparedness of students coming out of high school. Using a self-reporting transcript system with explicit instructions, the staff was able to standardize (to an extent) the 50,000 applications they receive each year. Using those standards, staff were able to do a more accurate recalculation of the GPA to account for difficulty of course, environmental conditions, weighted scales, and so on. In addition, the Environmental Context Dashboard – a pilot project produced by the College Board – provided admissions personnel with a dashboard view for students that rates their performance relative to other students on a variety of user-selected fields.

Back to the Future

Despite the clear grade inflation in high school GPA, results from both Barnhill's office and from the research of Shaw both confirm that high school GPA is still the largest indicator of success by a relatively comfortable margin. And Shaw was able to back that up with excellent original research, aggregated not only on a national level, but broken down by gender, ethnicity, and institutional control.


When predicting the success potential of a student, high school GPA and standardized test scores combined tend to have the strongest correlation with success. But both the audience and the presenters were quick to point out the importance of holistic thinking in the process. For one, college grades have also inflated over the same period, though not to the same extent shown in high school. In addition, not all high schools are created equal, and sound consideration must be given to each student given the academic environment they were in.