Does Grade Inflation in High School Affect Mental Health in University?

From an early age, we’re often asked the question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

At first, our answers are usually visions of grandeur; choices range from an astronaut, the Prime Minister of Canada, an NHL hockey player, and the list goes on. We progress through elementary school holding on to a few of those dreams, and by high school it becomes apparent whether or not they can become a reality. By the end of high school, our grades, not our lofty ambition, are now the primary indicators of our success. As students in today’s high pressure world, our decisions are often heavily influenced by our parents, our peers, and our teachers

University enrolment in Canada has increased substantially over the past decade
University enrolment in Canada has increased substantially over the past decade

University enrolment has increased quite substantially in North America since the year 2000, and tuition fees also continue to rise along with it. More and more students are being pushed into university, with the prospect of landing a good career as the primary motivation, although many students are mislead in this assumption. It is not a mystery that number of jobs for new university graduates are not as plentiful as the new graduates, yet students still blindly push on from high school into university each year. Grade inflation is largely to blame, as the number of students graduating with an A average is a staggering 60%,which is a 40% increase from 1980. Today, over 10% of students graduate with an A+ average.

There are two parties to blame here:

i) Universities that have continually increased their acceptance averages due to more intense competition and and increase in the number of applications.

ii) Competition and student narcissism have created high pressure environments for high school teachers, who have are often pressured by students or their parents to increase students’ grades so that more of them can meet these acceptance criteria.

Entrance scholarships are also a significant factor for top performing students who are entering university, with many universities offering guaranteed scholarships based solely on academic merit. With this gross increase in the amount of high achiever students, that’s a lot of money to be dished out.

The problem with grade inflation in high school is that it conditions students to be used to achieving high grades even though their quality of work may not necessarily reflect that. Students progress through 4 years of high school programs with relative ease and little sense of competition, only to be overwhelmed when they get to university. These students then have to compete with 900 other students who have grades just as good as theirs, and with class averages hovering in the low to mid 70s, something (or someone) has gotta give.

Competition for high grades becomes that much more intense, and high levels of stress set in at a very early age. When faced with the prospect that their once lofty career dreams are disappearing faster than a hot cup of coffee during exam season, the average 17 or 18 year old simply cannot cope, and this is where the mental health of students begins to wane.

I believe that the reason that we have experienced a spike in mental health issues in the past ten years at university is the fact that universities and high schools are sending the wrong message to students. There should not be the pressure to only be admitted to a program if you have a lofty high school average, but at the same time, high school teachers should have more accountability and grade students accordingly. I’m not suggesting all teachers are guilty of this, but regardless, a new standardization needs to come into play, and perhaps it is time that high school education became more difficult in the academic stream.

Perhaps universities shouldn’t offer as many scholarships that do not require an application, as this just heightens the incentive for teachers to inflate grades so their students can receive entrance scholarships. If we alleviate this pre-disposition to such inflated of levels success at the high school level, then perhaps students will gain coping skills at an earlier age and be able to deal with the hardships of university easier. Basically, high school has become too soft, and so have the graduates.

Grade inflation and lofty entrance averages have combined to negatively impact the mental health of students at university
Grade inflation and lofty entrance averages have combined to negatively impact the mental health of students at university

If we challenge our high school students with a more demanding curriculum, in addition to producing grades that more accurately depict students’ efforts, we will also produce better students in the way they approach challenges and cope with stress. By grading students on a scale of 0-100, we have essentially put a cap on achievement and merit.

What if we altered the scale such that achieving a 90 or even a 95 was something that could only be accomplished with an effort that was truly ingenious in nature?

What if we challenged students to shoot for that almost unattainable goal, in the hopes that they would truly be celebrated for their efforts?

Being an honour roll student used to warrant a bumper sticker on the back of your mother’s car, but now it’s as common as a purple participant ribbon. Students can put in minimal effort and achieve what is deemed to be an “exceptional effort” – the definition of an “A” grade standing in a course. If 60% of our high school students are deemed exceptional by this definition, I believe we have a problem: we’re lying to them. And once many find out that they’ve been lied to with regards to how smart they are after achieving marks in university far lower than what they were used to in high school, many will become anxious, experience self-doubt, and ultimately this can lead to much greater complications down the road.

As humans, it is in our nature to get bored of things that are too easy. We get bored by winning a hockey game 10-0, we get bored playing an easy video game, and students get bored if their courses are too easy. The opinion that most students had of their high school was that “it was a joke”. The lack of a challenging academic regimen produces students who get bored with education, and as a result, the passion for learning disappears with the challenge of achieving high grades.

People often think that if something is hard, it stresses people out. Perhaps, but a little stress is a good thing if the goal is eventually achievable. High school students that are challenged in a healthy manner will have a better positive relationship with learning, because the average human being enjoys a healthy challenge in some way or form. By altering the high school curriculum to be more challenging, more students will develop good learning habits and problem solving skills.

The bottom line: there are too many people going to university nowadays. Many students simply are not cut out for it, and many truly don’t want to be in university pursuing a degree they hate, but the external pressures they face make alternative paths difficult. College students are often viewed as a lesser species by those in university, and this sense of elitism exhibited by university students makes it embarrassing for many high school students to pursue post-secondary education at the college level. But the reality is, more students should be attending college than currently are, as universities are overstocked with students who are not in the right mindset to maximize their potential based on what a university education can offer them.

University is meant to cater to a certain type of mind, and many students would be much happier (and more academically successful) in college, but the stigma attached to a college education by those in the university bubble often peer pressures students into pursuing an education that is not right for them. It’s also why a lot of university students are attending college after their degree to gain some practical skills that their degree simply didn’t offer.

It’s time we stopped lying to all of our kids; the chance of a good career is not a fair compromise for the increased risk of depression, anxiety, or other serious mental health concerns. We need to understand that not everyone was born to be an astronaut, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t help the lucky ones who were reach outer space.

8 Comments Add yours

  1. Jon Azose says:

    That first plot seems to be showing enrollment of *international* students only. For example, the total number of undergraduate students in Canada in 2011 was just over 1 million, far higher than the ~150,000 shown in the plot. (Source:

    1. Hi Jon,

      Thanks for pointing out that error – I corrected it and submitted a new graph.

  2. Yvan Ung says:

    At least there is a university or two in Quebec that realizes that there are too many people in university for certain fields. Take political science for example. My undergraduate institution increased the minimum R-score required for political science from 20 to 22 back in 2012, and again from 22 to 24 in the face of cuts that forced it to curtail the number of seats and/or the amount of support staff.

    Since Quebec university admissions are different in their treatment of in-province grades, Quebec is less vulnerable to grade inflation. Two factors are at play: the strength of the class, as measured by ministerial exams (French, mathematics, history and English, although the English ministerial test is a complete joke for me, a Minnesota-bound PhD student that has always on the highest track for English in the French-language education system of Quebec), is factored in the calculation of R-scores, but the primary factor everyone obsesses over is not so much grades in and of themselves but their relative position in the class.

    So, although 25 is the average, it is, in practice, a first-semester average, and averages at the exit are more in the 26-28 range. However, that makes CEGEPs that much more cutthroat.

    1. Interesting information, Yvan, thanks for your input! Best of luck with your PhD in the future.

  3. Yvan Ung says:

    However, countries where high school really is as tough as you advocate are faced with similar mental health problems, only displaced earlier in the educational timeline… rather than to be faced with mental health problems in university, they face it in high school.

    That New York Times article, dated 2014, sheds light on what happens when the opposite ills are present. Some of the Korean ills (and Chinese ills as well), however, may be chalked up to other flaws that go beyond grade deflation.

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