Innovative Higher Education

, Volume 44, Issue 6, pp 497–510 | Cite as

The Distribution of College Grades across Fields in the Contemporary University

  • Joseph C. HermanowiczEmail author
  • David W. Woodring


Scholars have argued that grade inflation is pervasive throughout colleges and universities and that it is presently at an all-time high. Inflation is, however, a temporal concept: it is theoretically impossible for grades to keep increasing on a fixed scale. In this article we examine a related, though empirically distinct, phenomenon: the distribution of grades across fields in a university. We question global statements about grade inflation and examine if and how the university grading structure is internally differentiated. We use the idea of consensus, the extent to which practitioners of a field agree, as a means to differentiate areas in a university. Based on undergraduate grade data from a large, public university in the U.S., we use cluster analysis to ascertain an “architecture” of grades. The results demonstrate significant variation in how grades are distributed across fields. The work identifies a need to probe further the linkages between field consensus, rigor, student learning, and grade allocation in college.


College students Grades Grade inflation Academic fields Cluster analysis 



The authors thank Karlo Lei and Sondra Barringer for comments and suggestions in the development of the paper.


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© Springer Nature B.V. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of SociologyThe University of GeorgiaAthensUnited States

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