Women in the U.S. earn about 20 percent less than men, on average, mostly because they choose different occupations and tend to work fewer hours and years. Pundits and policymakers should not judge people’s individual decisions. But in the area of college grades, there’s room to improve the information available to young adults before they choose a career.
Grades in college courses are one of the ways that students learn about their abilities. But those grades have systematically drifted higher in certain fields, so that an average student in English tends to receive much higher grades than an average student in chemistry. New data compiled by Stuart Rojstaczer for 400 colleges show that grade point averages rose from 2.9 to 3.15 between 1973 and 2013, with a large and persistent gap between the humanities and the sciences.
A Model Student
Imagine a student deciding between majoring in English and chemistry. She takes a freshman-level composition class and gets an “A,” which is the median class grade due to grade inflation in that field. She’s just average, but the professor has told her she’s excellent.
She’s also an average student in “Chem 101,” but that earns her just a “B.” She has a scholarship that requires maintaining a B average, so majoring in chemistry might cost her money, and her grades are telling her—incorrectly—that she’s better at English than chemistry. So she chooses to major in English.
Four years later, she enters a job market where English majors earn $21,600 in their first year out of school, compared to the $31,200 that chemistry majors earn. That gap grows with experience.
Why the Gap?
Women may respond more to grades than men do. Professors at Wake Forest University, Cornell University, and Hamilton College have found that women are more likely to switch out of tough-grading majors after receiving a low grade in an introductory course. On the other hand, two multi-school studies found no significant gap between men and women for persistence in economics or science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) majors, respectively. Thus, the case is not closed, but there is reason to believe that grade reform would help women more than men. Even if there is no difference in grade sensitivity on an individual basis, the fact that college students are mostly female, especially in low-paying majors, means that more of the benefits of reform would go to women.
One elite women’s college—Wellesley—experimented with grade reform in 2003, and had tremendous results. Wellesley College mandated that freshman- and sophomore-level classes give grades averaging a B+ at most. In departments where average grades had been higher than a B+, the new policy reduced the number of majors by 30 percent. Those students moved instead to economics and the sciences, majors associated with much higher lifetime earnings.
In any case, grade reform does not merely offer the prospect of narrowing the gender gap; it has the potential to raise productivity and earnings for both men and women by encouraging them to pursue the careers in which they are most talented. In an era of low productivity growth, that’s a welcome prospect to everyone.
Colleges object that acting alone can hurt their graduates. If employers do not know that Wellesley and Brigham Young University students, for example, are held to higher standards, they will be at a disadvantage with uninflated GPAs.
One solution might be for a large consortium of highly regarded schools to act together, shifting gradually to a grading system that is comparable across schools and disciplines. For states with large public university systems, state government can play a role in pushing for reform.
Fairer grading will help young women and men identify their own talents and abilities and make the most of their college years.