Study finds admissions officers prone to select students with inflated grades

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Students may have good reason to complain about grade deflation, according to a study that reveals admissions officers are prone to select students with inflated grades over equally qualified applicants with lower GPAs.

The study, published last week by a group of four researchers, including two from the Haas School of Business, showed that admissions officers and hiring managers are prone to correspondence bias — ignoring situational context and judging applicants on the same criteria despite differing circumstances.

The study comprised four parts and examined job-hiring decisions and graduate school acceptances in a theoretical experiment and analyzed admissions data from 30,000 applicants at four selective MBA programs.

It found that students who attended schools where grades were inflated were up to 31 percent more likely to be admitted to MBA programs compared to students of similar aptitude at schools where GPAs were not inflated.

“We found that decision-makers routinely fail to take into account the influence of the situation on candidates’ performance, whether that’s GPA or job opportunities,” said Samuel Swift, one of the study’s co-authors and a Haas postdoctoral fellow.

Among other institutions of similar prestige, UC Berkeley reportedly has one of the most stringent grading policies, enforcing GPA caps in its most competitive schools and majors. Such caps may put students at a disadvantage in comparison to similarly qualified students from other institutions where average GPA is higher, according to Don Moore, another co-author and a Haas associate professor.

The problem, according to Moore, is not that students with inflated GPAs have an automatic advantage but that admissions officers lack the information necessary to make fair decisions.

“Admissions officers ought to insist on getting useful contextual information,” Moore said. “It’s not enough to know that a student has a GPA of 3.5. You want to to know class rank, and you want to know what the average GPA of students at that institution is.”

Even so, Moore said, correspondence bias may continue to affect decision-makers even when they are given adequate information.

“The results suggest pessimism,” Moore said. “Even when we gave (test subjects) all the necessary information, they still made this error.”

In March, UC Berkeley considered adding class rank and average class grades to students’ transcripts to better contextualize the school’s grading policies.

Michelle Lam, a UC Berkeley senior, plans to attend medical school and expressed concerns about being at a disadvantage to students from comparable schools with more inflated GPAs.

“I’d probably be annoyed if other students from schools with inflation have a leg up,” Lam said.

Swift said that the admissions process does not rely solely on GPA, but he acknowledged the importance of putting applicants on equal footing.

“It’s still just one ingredient in the process, but it needs to be an ingredient that’s used well,” he said.

The study also found that similar instances of correspondence bias exist in executives’ hiring and promotional decisions, suggesting that professionals working in easier business conditions are more likely to be viewed favorably by superiors than workers performing similarly in more difficult conditions.

“Most people don’t think they are biased,” Moore said. “The truth is that people make this mistake even when they think they’re not.”

Contact Simon Greenhill and Somin Park at [email protected]