In addition to tuition inflation, grade inflation among American colleges and universities is prevalent.

A new study may offer an explanation: Applicants from institutions with grade inflation are favored over those who had more rigorous instructors.  As schools market the success of their graduates, those that inflate grades are rewarded.

Inside Higher Ed writer Scott Jaschik offers the details:

New research in the journal PLOS ONE has found that admissions officers appear to favor applicants with better grades at institutions where everyone is earning high grades over applicants with lower grades at institutions with more rigorous grading. The research is based on an experiment involving 23 admissions officers and on long-term, real data on applicants to four competitive M.B.A. programs.

For the experiment, scholars from the business schools of Harvard University and the University of California at Berkeley, and a researcher from CivicScience (a polling research organization), gave the admissions officers fake portfolios on applicants to an M.B.A. program. The admissions officers (from unidentified undergraduate and graduate admissions offices) were told that all the applications came from those about to graduate from colleges that admitted smart students of roughly equal academic ability. The transcripts for these fake applicants included not only the hypothetical students’ grades, but also measures of the grade distribution at the institutions, showing that some of these institutions generally awarded high grades and others did not.

The results? Applicants with high grades were much more likely to be offered admission — even when the context provided should have indicated that many of the other students were as academically able, but happened to go to institutions that didn’t just hand out A grades.

When interviewed, the admissions officers all said they looked for context on grades in terms of the reputations of undergraduate institutions as being easy or tough graders. But they didn’t act on the context they were provided.

Those results, of course, come from only 23 admissions officers. But the researchers also looked at real admissions decisions made by four selective M.B.A. programs (admitting 16-39 percent of their applicants) — looking at data for more than 30,000 applicants. The pool covered applicants from several years of admissions cycles and excluded those who did not earn bachelor’s degrees in the United States. The business schools provided a range of information about the applicants — including scores on standardized tests, years of work experience, grades, gender, race, etc. In addition, the researchers gathered information on the grading norms at the undergraduate institutions the applicants attended.