"Grades A and B are sometimes given too readily -- Grade A for work of not very high merit, and Grade B for work not far above mediocrity . . . One of the chief obstacles to raising the standards of the degree is the readiness with which insincere students gain passable grades by sham work."
The assumption is that Harvard in 1894 represents all of higher education in 1894 and decades thereafter. No data usually back up these attempts to dismiss grade inflation by making it seem common as dirt for over a century. The only person I know that has attempted to use data is Harry Lewis from Harvard, who meticulously examined Dean's Lists over time at that school. Here are the trends in the percentage of Harvard students who made the Dean's List (from Lewis' book, Excellence Without A Soul):
Looking at this chart probably makes you inclined to agree that significant grade inflation has been going on since at least the 1920s at Harvard. A greater percentage of students end up on the Dean's List every year.
But Dean's List percentages are not grades. They are a proxy for grades. Actual grades at Harvard show a different story:
You can see just why Harvard was concerned about high grades in 1894. A's and B's, according to 1890 data, were being handed out 47% of the time. The university wasn't particularly selective then in its admissions either. They accepted very run of the mill students and there is no way that those students were producing good to excellent work nearly half the time. Harvard was in fact, being too easy on its students back then and the ease wasn't just in grading as is documented in the recent and excellent sociology book The Chosen by Karabel.
But then in the 1900s, Harvard decided to get serious about education again. Grades dropped accordingly. It wasn't until the 1960's that A's became as common as they were in 1890.
Was there grade inflation from 1920 to 1960? Yes, but it was, like at other schools (as I and Chris Healy documented in our 2010 Teachers College Record paper), very modest. B gradually replaced C as the most common grade. A's were still uncommon. The change was to be expected. Student quality did get better at Harvard over that time. Students also didn't drop out as frequently, which meant they increasing took upper division classes; these classes traditionally have higher grades. Nationwide, part of the modest rise in grades at that time was due to a new requirement that a 2.0 GPA or greater be required for graduation.
But the changes in grades prior to 1960 at Harvard and elsewhere pale in comparison to the grade changes in the Vietnam era and beyond. A's rose dramatically in the 1960s. By the 1990s, A was the most common grade at Harvard. As Chris Healy and I show in a paper that should be published before the year is out, A became the most common grade not only at Harvard, but on average nationwide in the 1990s. By early in the 2000s, A was by far the most common grade at Harvard, easily eclipsing the once common B; this too happened, on average, nationwide. Excellence became ordinary.
Has grade inflation truly been with us for a century or so? At Harvard the answer is no. Not surprisingly, that's also true at the other schools for which we have extensive historical data. Grade inflation is really a Vietnam era and beyond problem. I note that Harry Lewis, after seeing the grade chart I show above, agrees with this assessment for Harvard.