Three economics professors from Wellesley College, Kristin Butcher, Patrick McEwan and Akila Weerapana have published a paper in the Journal of Economic Perspectives titled “The Effects of an Anti-Grade-Inflation Policy at Wellesley College”. The paper uses econometric methods to analyze the effects of Wellesley’s grading on students’ academic performance, satisfaction with their instructors and success applying to graduate school and jobs.
The paper was published this summer amid increasing concerns about grade inflation at universities and colleges across the country. Its findings were mentioned in The Economist and on Radio Boston, among other news outlets.
The grade deflation policy, put into effect after approval from the Academic Council in 2003, mandates that the mean grade in 100-level and 200-level courses with 10 or more students should be no higher than 3.33, or a B+. Butcher believes that the decision to implement the policy helped protect Wellesley’s reputation as a credible institution.
“I could argue that it [was] in Wellesley’s best interest to [implement an anti-grade inflation policy] to the extent that our reputation was suffering by people having too high of grades and then not demonstrating those competences when they show up—that undermines the credibility of an institution,” Butcher said.
Through their research, Butcher, McEwan and Weerapana found that the implementation of the grade deflation policy affected the average grade given out in the humanities and social sciences, with the exception of economics, but did not greatly impact the average grade awarded in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) departments. As a result, students became less likely to major in the humanities or the social sciences, with the exception of economics, and classes in these subjects saw a decrease in enrollment.
The paper shows that more students take classes in or major in a subject in the hard sciences or economics as a result of the policy, which used to have comparatively lower average grades. This observation is supported by the Bloomberg View article “Can ‘Yellen Effect’ Attract Young Women to Economics?” by Claudia Golden, which cited Butcher, McEwan and Weerapana’s paper, stating that women consider the grades they expect to receive when selecting a major.
The professors also studied the effect of the policy on Student Evaluation Questionnaires (SEQs). SEQs or equivalent questionnaires are commonly used by colleges, including Wellesley, to determine the merit and possible tenure of a professor. Overall, students at Wellesley are satisfied with their professors, with over 60 percent indicating that they would “strongly recommend” their professors.
Butcher, McEwan and Weerapana used econometric methods that test for causality between grade and SEQs before and after the policy change. They found that after the college passed the anti-grade inflation policy, departments whose average grades decreased saw a reduction in ratings on SEQs. Students rated their professors 0.11 less on a four-point scale in departments where the deflation policy decreased grades. Additionally, the percentage of students who “do not recommend” their professors rose from around five percent to slightly over seven percent in these departments.
Lucy Cheng ’16 believes that this drop in SEQ ratings comes from a lack of knowledge about the policy.
“I feel like that stems from a confusion about grade deflation. When you are a first year, you come in hearing about grade deflation, but don’t know that much about it. SEQs are a convenient way to take things out on your professors,” she said.
Butcher states that the only adjustment she would make is improving the way the policy is communicated to each new batch of students.
In an interview with Radio Boston, Weerapana states that as employment and graduate school admissions become increasingly competitive, the credibility of an institution will be called into question when considering a potential candidate.
“It is a big problem and people talk about…a more narrative evaluation system, but those of us who’ve been reading letters of recommendation know that there’s been inflation in those narrative instruments as well,” Weerapana said. “So one of the things I tell my students is, ‘In the end, you have to convince people that you can do a good job for them by the work that you do.’”
Ultimately, the grade deflation policy has not caused a decrease in graduates’ satisfaction with their Wellesley educations. In research not in the paper, Butcher, McEwan and Weerapana use alumnae donations to the College within five years of graduation as a proxy for success in their jobs and happiness with their undergraduate education. They found that there was no effect on donations from students who majored in departments affected by the policy.
Wellesley has been commended for its grade deflation policy since its implementation in 2004. Butcher appreciates that the administration is still interested in analyzing the effect of the policy.
“I was really happy with Wellesley for being interested in looking at that rigorously,” Butcher said. “There were plenty of people who were praising Wellesley for adopting it before we actually looked at the data, so if all the administration had been interested in is the outside world praising us, they didn’t have to let us look at the data to see what happened.”