"A" The Hard Way, 2010:

GradeInflation.com's Sweet Sixteen of Tough Graders


March Madness is upon us. Last year at this time, GradeInflation.com came up with a Sweet Sixteen of grade inflaters. As the graph above shows, grade inflation is pervasive in academia. It's present at almost every school that's part of a major athletic conference.

We could have made a new Sweet Sixteen of inflaters this year. Some university administrators were worried that we would. One provost actually sent us data a couple weeks before this year's NCAA tournament began in a pre-emptive effort to show that his school wasn't much of an inflater and lobbied to stay off this year's Grade Inflation Sweet Sixteen. We didn't know we had that kind of clout!

But this year finds us in a very good mood. We've decided that it's both just too easy and mean to out schools for being slacker havens. We thought it would be much better to look at the other end of the spectrum: the schools that defy the trend of the easy A. These are rare schools, but if you look long and hard, you can find them.

Just like tough D wins basketball games, tough A's help to create an environment for a rigorous education. Here are sixteen schools where getting an A is significantly harder than at your average college or university. Not all of them have particularly low GPAs compared to national averages, but there are schools where the talent level is so high that one should expect A's to be more prevalent. We've taken talent level into account in the creation of this Sweet Sixteen.

The East

1. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Engineering and science based schools dominate the Sweet Sixteen of Tough A's. Their workloads are higher and their grades are lower than national averages. Rensselaer fits right in with a high quality student body and an average GPA about 0.25 below typical private schools of its caliber.

2. Princeton University. The Tigers are a newcomer to the tough A. Leadership here has worked hard over the last few years to make sure that excellence is accorded only to those that truly deserve it. Princeton may be new to reversing grade inflation, but in this year's tourney, they may go all the way.

3. Boston University. BU's student body complains mightily about grades and how hard it is to get an A. At a lot of schools such complaints defy reality. But at BU, getting a B average puts you right in the middle of pack. Graduating with a 3.5 makes you a star.

4. MIT. The Beavers likely deserve a higher seed, but their leadership is very, very tight lipped about their grades. When MIT last slipped and published some data several years ago, the average GPA was less than 3.2. At schools with comparable talent like Harvard and Yale, GPA's are 0.2 to 0.4 higher.

The South

1. Virginia Commonwealth University. Public schools in urban settings can be very tough places to earn an A. At VCU, even getting a B can be an achievement. Its average GPA is 2.6, far below national averages.

2. Hampden-Sydney College. H-SC is a very small school tucked away in the South. It's had modest problems with grade inflation over the last decade, but H-SC's grades are still so low relative to other liberal arts colleges that it fully merits a number 2 seed in the very tough Southern region.

3. Roanoke College. Liberal arts colleges tend to be easy A heaven. That's not so at Roanoke where B is still the most common grade and A's are earned less than 30 percent of the time.

4. Auburn University. Another Tiger in this year's Sweet Sixteen. Eat your hearts out 'Bama; Auburn is just a tougher place to earn an A.

The Midwest

1. Purdue University. Getting an A is hard for the Boilermakers with an average GPA that has hovered around 2.8 for over 30 years. Purdue doesn't even seem to know that grade inflation exists in America. In that regard, ignorance is bliss.

2. University of Houston. The Midwest is our weakest division and to make up for it, we've shipped some schools from the South to here. Like VCU, Houston is a tough urban public school to earn an A with a GPA that has held at a steady 2.6 for 15 years.

3. Southern Polytechnic State. Another hard-nosed science and engineering school. Its state rival Georgia Tech is no piece of cake either, but SPSU gets the nod for a Sweet Sixteen seed this year.

4. Florida International University. A's are far harder to come by at FIU than they are at Florida's flagship school in Gainesville. Earn a 3.4 GPA at FIU and you're well ahead of the pack. Maybe next year the Midwest will toughen up and be able to compete with the Southern schools that we've shipped into the land of the wind chill factor.

The West

1. Reed College. If you go to Reed, you know in advance that A's are earned. There's a reason why this school places so many students in Ph.D. programs and medical schools.

2. CSU-Fullerton. Resources are tight in the CSU system and Fullerton has its share of real problems. But grade inflation is not an issue here. Grades are about the same as they were in 1978 and the average GPA is 2.7.

3. Harvey Mudd College. This small science and engineering school outside of LA has, to our mind, one of the funniest names for a school in America (OK, Chico State is even funnier). But the name is where all jokes end. Harvey Mudd's average GPA is in the 3.2 range, which might seem high at face value. But these students are some of the best in the country. If they took classes with their liberal arts college neighbors across the way (Harvey Mudd is part of a consortium of colleges), they'd be getting A's ten to thirty percent more frequently.

4. Simon Fraser University. Unlike the NCAA, GradeInflation.com is not restricted to seeding only American schools. Just across the Washington state border in beautiful British Columbia, SFU has avoided grade inflation as successfully as Celine Dion has avoided Tim Hortons (you might have to be Canadian to get that one). They are stingy with their A's, giving them only about 25 percent of the time.

That's it for our Sweet Sixteen this year. If you feel your school has been slighted by omission, send us a verifiable record of their grading history. They just might make the Sweet Sixteen in 2011!