Making the Grade

College kids these days seem to have it easy. When I was that age, I had to walk twelve miles uphill through a blizzard to get to class, and then make a similarly brutal trip uphill to get back home. Not to mention that back then the median grade was somewhere around a C-. And this was during the easy courses in summer session.

Well, perhaps that isn’t all completely accurate, but according to a forthcoming paper by Philip Babcock in Economic Inquiry, it seems likely that we did study more back then. The key result is that students spend more time studying in classes where the expected grade is lower. So, if grade inflation leads to higher expected grades, I read that to mean that on average students will study less.

Abstract: College grade point averages in the United States rose substantially between the 1960s and the 2000s. Over the same period, study time declined by almost a half. This paper uses a 12-quarter panel of course evaluations from the University of California, San Diego to discern whether a link between grades and effort investment holds up in a micro setting. Results indicate that average study time would be about 50% lower in a class in which the average expected grade was an “A” than in the same course taught by the same instructor in which students expected a “C.Findings do not appear to be driven primarily by the individual student’s expected grade, but by the average expected grade of others in the class. Class-specific characteristics that generate low expected grades appear to produce higher effort choices — evidence that nominal changes in grades may lead to real changes in effort investment.

The emphasis is mine.

If we here in economics announced that the average course grade is a half point lower than the average campus grade, would we get harder-working students? Or just fewer students?