Education, From The Capitol To The Classroom

Easy A? The 10 Departments At IU & Purdue Giving The Most A's

Kyle Stokes/StateImpact Indiana

Purdue University, where an average of 40 percent of all grades given out are A's.

Looking to graduate college with lots of A’s on your transcript? Major in Aerospace Studies at Indiana University, or take a lot of band classes at Purdue.

Amid the debate over grade inflation across the country — a national study found three out of every four students at public flagship universities earn either an ‘A’ or a ‘B’ in their classes — we took a closer look at grades data at Indiana’s flagship universities, IU and Purdue.

Both schools give out more A’s on average than any other grade. A’s make up 42.3 percent of all grades given out at IU and 40.5 percent of all grades at Purdue. The national average is 43 percent.

But data from the Spring 2011 semester also show individual schools and academic departments within IU and Purdue vary widely in how many A’s they give out — check out the chart after the jump:

The departments where you’re most likely to get an A:

Indiana University – Top 10 A % Purdue University – Top 10 A %
Aerospace Studies (Air Force) 80.00% University Bands 97.77%
School of Library and Information Science 78.71% Honors 87.59%
Nursing 75.09% Naval ROTC 86.92%
Liberal Arts and Management Program 73.91% Health & Kinesiology 86.31%
Military Science (Army) 72.79% Youth Development & Agricultural Education 83.13%
Music 71.16% Dance 81.28%
African Studies 69.15% Theatre 79.55%
Education 68.61% Curriculum & Instruction 75.52%
Hutton Honors College 68.55% Film & Video Studies 74.34%
Central Eurasian Studies 67.65% Educational & Psychological Studies 74.12%
SOURCE: IU & Purdue Registrar grade distribution data, Spring 2011. Excludes courses with three or fewer students, for which grade distributions are not published, and departments with four or fewer courses.

Essentially, the chart shows you’re more likely to get an A-range grade (A–, A, A+) taking classes in these departments than the average class in IU’s 68 departments or Purdue’s 103 departments.

The departments where you’re least likely to get an A:

Indiana University – Bottom 10 A % Purdue University – Bottom 10 A %
Math 18.48% Professional Practice & Education 0.00%*
Chemistry 20.76% Veterinary Medicine 8.66%
Anatomy 22.71% Clinical Pharmacy 19.64%
Economics 22.77% Engineering 23.03%
Philosophy 26.96% Materials Science & Engineering 24.50%
Labor Studies 27.85% Math 24.80%
Astronomy 29.73% Biological Sciences 27.18%
Spanish & Portuguese 29.92% Food Science 27.91%
American Studies 30.18% Philosophy 27.93%
Sociology 31.68% Physiology 28.02%
SOURCE: IU & Purdue Registrar grade distribution data, Spring 2011. Excludes courses with three or fewer students, for which grade distributions are not published, and departments with four or fewer courses.
* All students received grades classified as ‘other,’ such as in pass/fail courses.

The numbers raise questions we’ll be exploring in our reporting on StateImpact. Do these differences in the number of A’s come from easier or harder classes across different departments? Do professors grade differently? Across the board, are students simply getting smarter? Or do they demonstrate that “grade inflation” is a macro-level problem, but on the micro-level, classes are still just as difficult as they’ve always been? And is grade inflation actually a bad thing?

Stuart Rojstaczer and Christopher Healy authored the national study — we’ve written about it before. Both have criticized what they say is a pattern of inflating grades tracing back to the 1940s:

The evolution of grading has made it difficult to distinguish between excellent and good performance… When A is ordinary, college grades cross a significant threshold. Over a period of roughly 50 years, with a slight reversal from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, America’s institutions of higher learning gradually created a fiction that excellence was common and that failure was virtually nonexistent.

Some potential causes of grade inflation: professors are using more subjective factors in grading, and according to the Minnesota-based Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, universities are watering down course contents:

For large public universities, the temptation might be to lower both the expectations and demands in individual courses. A fairly liberal admissions policy, a large number of non-traditional students, and a large number of working students all tempt professors to lower their expectations by reducing the number of textbooks, the amount of writing, and the amount of homework in the course. The goal may be laudable in responding to the particular needs of a specific student body but the result may be inflated grades.

But education writer Alfie Kohn says it’s not clear grades across the board are actually inflating. Even in individual schools where grades are going up, it’s not fair to assume that means the A’s are actually coming easier:

The burden rests with critics to demonstrate that those higher grades are undeserved, and one can cite any number of alternative explanations. Maybe students are turning in better assignments. Maybe instructors used to be too stingy with their marks and have become more reasonable. Maybe the concept of assessment itself has evolved, so that today it is more a means for allowing students to demonstrate what they know rather than for sorting them or “catching them out.” (The real question, then, is why we spent so many years trying to make good students look bad)…

The bottom line: No one has ever demonstrated that students today get A’s for the same work that used to receive B’s or C’s. We simply do not have the data to support such a claim.

So are you worried about grades going up? Are you convinced grade inflation is a problem?


  • PurdueBandKid219

    Something’s really fishy in that Purdue Bands… :p

  • Guest

    Some of the Honors programs only admit “A” students. If a program consists of smart kids, you would expect a higher percentage of students to get an A. It also depends on how the course is graded. If the teacher grades on a curve, or uses some other grading method to rank the students relative to others in the class, you might see a wider distribution of grades. But if the teacher grades each student individually on some objective pre-determined criteria, there is no reason why you couldn’t have over half the class doing “A” work. This article does not include enough detail to show a causal link between these programs and higher grades. Correlation does not imply causation.

    • Anonymous

      Thanks for your comment, but do you really think we’re ultimately trying to prove ‘causation’ here? I think what we’re doing is putting the data out there. Statistically, one is more likely to get an A in a department that gives out 80% A’s than one that gives out 50% A’s.

      If you think we ran afoul, show us where we did!

      • IUprofessor

        One never ‘just puts data out there’ in a void. There has to be an argument for the data generation and for interpreting the data. This is the basis for all research. So, what are you trying to argue with this data? By mixing graduate only and undergraduate and undergraduate/graduate programs you are mixing apples and oranges. By mixing largely professional programs that have what the students, instructors, and the professional fields see as terminal degrees (for which the highest grade may be rather irrelevant) with more traditionally academic programs that may lead to later studies (for which higher grades may be important for admission) you are mixing apples and oranges. There are also different tasks and corresponding to them different grading practices, too: for example, the accomplishment of a task for a certain level of learner for prescriptive skills that will be more perfected on the job or for the accomplishment of basic fundamental skills needed for another level of work or for effort in understanding complex issues. And there are different types of students and institutions. To sum up, there are different motivations behind grading, which are only suggested in this article at the very end.
        Where you “ran afoul” is not in terms of the collection and assemblage of data, I’m sure, but in the even more important aspects of doing research: forming an argument for which this data is being collected and assembled and making this, and the method, clear to the reader.
        I’ve taught in a variety of fields and over 25 years. I’d give you an “F.” This article and its ‘data’ are misleading, to say the least. I’m sorry, but this strikes me as nothing but yellow journalism.

        • StateImpact Indiana

          In an academic setting, yes, I agree there has to be an argument for the data generation and for interpreting the data.

          In a journalistic setting, I disagree. It’s “we report, you decide,” not “we decide & report.” The data is assembled here in a way for other readers to interpret, and ultimately draw their own conclusions from (or dismiss) the data.

  • Stardove3

    The problem with grade inflation comes when someone like me, who has gotten A’s and B’s all throughout undergrad and high school, transitions into a program like the Vet Med program you have listed up there. It comes as a huge shock to be putting in a lot more effort and seem to be barely scraping by with Cs. And most of us in the program are intelligent, hard working people. I’ve often said I don’t feel like the work I put in studying ever gets reflected in my grade, but maybe I’m just still not used to the higher standards.

  • BoilerMkrEng

    Hey Kyle, while I understand that you are generally sound in your argument, your logic is skewed due to your sampling size as well as your selection. While statistically yes these departments are more likely to “give out A’s” you also need to take into account percentage of population distrobution in these departments as well as the availability of pass/fail options. Of the “easiest” classes you have included are a largey either voluntary or performing arts ie ( Band, Dance, Theatre, ROTC, and Film and Video) for Purdue. Most of these classes students take just to relax from their otherwise demanding schedule. Since these aren’t required for their curriculum, standard academic letter grades cannot be equivalently assigned but are still deemed necessary by the University standards. As for undergrad, Purdue is renowned for Vet, Engineering, and Pharmacy all of which you included in the difficult category. Further studies by the New York Times, Newsweek, Wall Street Journal, and CBS affiliates have all named Purdue as one of the hardest schools in the midwest to achieve an A in.

    Washington Post further correlates this fact

    Pay attention to the graph showing grade changes over time particularly how Purdue is at the very low end of this spectrum. So when you say “three out of every four students at public flagship universities earn either an ‘A’ or a ‘B’ in their classes”
    Please first realize that you are negatively inferring a depreciation in the quality of education that our efforts are now meaningless because heck, everyone gets A’s. Now I’m going back to my engineering hw(that I’m pretty sure I’m going to get a B on) and you go back to writing articles but next time, please be more careful…….

    • StateImpact Indiana

      Thanks for your comment and for reading the post, BoilerMkrEng.

      I disagree with your assertion that this post makes “arguments”, or that it “infers a depreciation” of educational quality at all. I neither “argued” nor “inferred” anything. I looked at the data, and put it out there for you to see as well.

      Here’s how I see it: This post does not speak to ease or difficulty of the courses in a substantive way. I’m simply saying these are courses where the most A’s are given. This post considers multiple viewpoints on “grade inflation,” including whether the phenomenon actually exists at all. We cite arguments (from Rojstaczer & Healy) that grade inflation is happening and it’s bad,and we cite arguments (from Kohn) that grade inflation isn’t necessarily happening, and it’s not bad.

      The purpose of this post is to put the data out there. I excluded “courses with three or fewer students, for which grade distributions are not published, and departments with four or fewer courses,” as is noted above. Otherwise, it’s here. I invite you to draw conclusions from it.

      I’m open to arguments that I didn’t do right by the data or by you (the readers of this post and the comments section). If you have them, please share them here in the comments!

      But as a journalist, I’m paid to leave my inferences and arguments to myself — and instead paid to give voice to as many points of view and arguments as possible.

    • Lhuser

      Let’s see to get into IU School of Nursing you need at least 3.5 preferably a 4.0 or better, especially at Indianapolis Campus.

      So I don’t think the School of Nursing is giving inflated grades. If you want to stressed out students look at the Nursing Students.

      And the schools vary, on what is an acceptable grade to pass to class. When I was undergrad from 1979 into 1983. If you were in School of Nursing and got a C-, you flunked the class and had to take it over. When I was in Master’s Program if you got a B- it was flunking in 1997.

      • StateImpact Indiana

        Good point LHuser. I’ve heard this on several different accounts. Just to be clear, as I say in my response to BoilerMkrEng, I did my best in the above post to try not to take a stance on the existence or lack thereof of grade inflation.

  • IUBloomingtonStaffer

    BoilerMkrEng, performing arts may be a thing you take to relax at Purdue, but IU’s Jacobs School of Music is one of the most difficult and rigorous conservatories in the world. I assure you these students are not relaxing. They are getting a full IU education, practicing hours and hours a day, participating in ensembles, and in many cases touring the world doing concerts.

    • Guest

      Just because Purdue students take classes like band to “relax” does not mean they do not put a huge amount of time and effort into it. If most Purdue students do not put as much time into their musical studies as students at IU, it is because every student enrolled in music classes or a band at Purdue is in a major other than music.

      All BoilerMkrEng is saying is that because students that are in a band at Purdue are not studying music as a major, there is no real reason to rank students or evaluate them on their transcripts for it. An A in 3 or 4 credit hours worth of classes for the time those students put into their work is a small step towards making up for time they lose that they could spend studying for their core classes.

      Giving out bad grades and destroying the GPA of students who are volunteering their time, many of whom are in extremely demanding majors like engineering, ect. does nothing for Purdue’s music department. BoilerMkrEng said nothing about IU’s music school or that it was easy. He actually states “FOR PURDUE” after he talks about it being “relaxing”.

      Everyone knows that IU has one of the best schools of music in the world and no one was saying otherwise, so cool your jets and climb down from your high horse.

  • Alan Kane

    this study is a joke

    • StateImpact Indiana

      Elaborate, please! To what “study” are you referring?

  • YetAnotherBoilermaker

    Interesting data, though to me I wonder if it doesn’t raise more questions than it answers –

    For instance (as a Boilermaker I’ll look at Purdue’s numbers), math is gives out a meager 25% A’s, however I can’t help but wonder if that number is severely diluted by the fact that there are a large number of non-math majors required to take math courses (and may struggle with them). Perhaps if you are a math major taking higher level courses the outlook will be quite similar to any other hard science..

    Similarly, engineering might actually be tougher than it seems on this chart, because a large amount of the attrition that takes places in the engineering curriculum is actually done by via math, chemistry, or physics (not by having them take and perform poorly in engineering courses). Those who have made it through the “gauntlet” of 3 semesters of calculus and two semesters of physics will only be just starting their engineering coursework.

    Of course on the extreme end of this, it may be a testament to the difficulty of the pharmacy and veterinary medicine, if those results are amongst only those accepted through the already challenging pre-pharm / pre-vet programs (if pre-professional programs are included in these numbers, may need to adjust accordingly). There is a competitive process just to get into the schools, and yet even then those who make it find themselves still having to work for a very limited number of “A’s” I suppose there are also alternative theories such as: the programs they are in require additional effort in extracirricular events that are not reflected in the grades yet take away from time available for study (likely) or that once they have made it into the program, they start to relax a bit and some A’s turn into B’s (less likely from my experience, but still plausible).

  • someone

    Many of the most A-giving schools at IU are listed as such because they only have graduate programs, and graduate programs tend to give out more As than undergraduate programs, for what it’s worth.

    • Kevin Carlson

      SLIS is the only example of that I note.

  • Caroline

    I attend Ivy Tech, which offers mostly general education classes and also has a very rigorous nursing program. I can atest that with the exception of the nursing program at that school, there is without a doubt a very serious problem with grade inflation. I would venture to say that Ivy Tech is not the acception, instead it seems that it has become the rule across the board of the American educational system. The meaning of an A was meant to be ” Outstanding” that means the student stands out above most other students. By deffinition there should be very few A’s given out, instead research does show they seem to be given out like candy. I cannot speak for Universities as I have yet to attend one, but I have read that in many cases it is not much different for Universities It would not hurt for us as a country to re-evaluate our grading policies.

  • AFcadet322

    Why are the ROTC classes even included? I was AFROTC at Purdue and got A’s because they’re all attendance based. The grade in ROTC classes (Aerospace studies for AFROTC, and Military Science for AROTC, and Naval Studies for NROTC) isn’t important at all compared to the training gotten during Field Training (or the Army and Navy equivalent), and those are during the summer months and don’t get college credit anyways.

  • Jlhiatt

    I am currently trying to find information regarding the course difficulty at IU Bloomington vs IU Kokomo. This is the only site I have found that gives any insight into how well students in the nursing program do at IUB. The nursing students at IUK are on a stricter grading scale than IUB and are in the process of trying to gather data to have the scale equal to the other IU campuses. We gave been told in order to get a change implemented that we have to prove that the course rigor is equal to or more difficult than IUB. How can we locate more data similar to that posted above?

  • Elizabeth

    I don’t know about the other departments, but because I know their analysis of a music degree through IU is completely mislead, I can only go to assume that their entire argument is as well. Music students get lots of As because the only students who get into the music school are kids who are extremely devoted to their studies.

  • Marwanherro

    hi i need to learn the it means information technologies do i find it please i am caring to take this focult ?

  • Life Lessons

    Hmmm…. Perhaps this also means the students in these departments are very smart. I believe that a better study to see if there truly is grade inflation. Alfie Kohn is correct.

  • EH123

    I am very, excruciatingly familiar with the Nursing program at IU, and it is a well-known and really intense program. The classes are VERY challenging and require a lot of hard studying and hours of clinical. Upper level classes have 13 hour clinicals. So the reason there are mostly A’s… 1. The girls (and guys) are very competitive and serious about their grades. You’re looked down upon if you don’t make at least a solid B and even then you are considered sub par…which is ridiculous by the way. 2. To even get in to nursing school you have to have mostly, if not all, A’s. Only about 60 people get into the program out of 350+ pre-nursing applicants. 3. If you get below a C in any of the Nursing courses, you fail them, and if you fail two, you are kicked out of the program. So those are just a few. Hutton Honors is in the same sort of boat, you can only stay in it if you’re making high grades. So basically, this is proving what one of my Sociology classes has been saying “Statistics are socially constructed because people can pick and choose what to count and how to count it.” Just saying.

  • BOBO

    I come across this article quite often when googling IU grade distribution data. I’m quite surprised by the negative comments on it. To me, its good data and you don’t make any sweeping accusations about the majors listed. As a simple commentor, I will make some sweeping accusations. I take courses in a very wide variety of departments, and I DEFINITELY see grade inflation and high variability in grading schemes in different departments. For instance, math and economics classes are indeed some of the most difficult. Obviously there are many caveats to the data: for instance, there is a huge number of mediocre students taking introductory economics classes since its a kelley prereq; similarly, (albeit to a lesser degree) intro math classes like Finite, Calc I & II have to be taken by a large amount of nonmajors, everyone for the former and bio/biochem/etc for the latter.

    The problem all these commentors have complaining that their major is seen as a grade inflated one despite every “working really hard” is that they have no comparison. Note that Kelley courses are often regarded as being exceptionally difficult and business majors very hard-working. Most of the people that taken them however have only other business classes/majors for comparison. As someone who has taken both, business classes take much less effort and intelligence to pull an A than for instance chemistry or math. Despite this, chemistry and math majors often assume business classes are of equivalent difficult simply because they’ve been lauded as such by business majors.

    Obviously some of the data is misleading, for instance that anatomy classes are comparatively difficult to math. The simple fact is that every want to be premed has to take anatomy while only a small subset of some of the most difficult majors are required to take more than 1 or two math classes (and these people often got credit for them in highschool AP courses). Chemistry courses pose a similar conundrum; there are very many highly intelligent people taking chemistry courses, but there are also a lot of mediocre students doing the same because chemistry is required for a large amount of majors (and there is high variability in chemistry majors). This doesn’t mean grades are deflated, but that compared to something like math, students of less aptitude are exposed to chemistry courses. If you need more proof, ask many freshman/sophomore biochemistry students why they didn’t choose chemistry. A common answer is, “You don’t have to take Calc III for biochem.”

    The long and the short is that there are easier majors and harder majors. This doesn’t necessarily reflect the intelligence of the students within them positively or negatively (that is to say nursing students arent all geniuses for having a high % of A’s and neither are they all stupid for having a major which may be easier to get As in). The only hard consequences I can elicit from this data is that a math or chemistry major with a high GPA is likely intelligent and hardworking, while a library science or nursing major with a low one likely isnt. One cant say that a nursing major with high gpa or an economics major with a low gpa isn’t smart or hardworking.

    • Jessica

      As someone else noted, many majors (nursing included) have a competitive element in being accepted to take the major courses. I would argue, having completed the IU Nursing program, and having worked in a University registrar’s office (before completing my degree) that A’s in nursing courses are not “easy” to obtain. The grading scale within nursing is different than the scale used in most other programs. An A letter grade in the IU Nursing system is equal to a 96% or greater (not 95.9%, 96%). Additionally, anything less than 79% (C) is considered a course failure. Two course failures is an automatic removal from the program. Students also have to have high GPAs and other qualifiers to be admitted to the program. In other words, students incapable of earning A’s in their courses are usually either not admitted to the program at all, or are removed from the program. The average GPA is high because without that high GPA, students are not allowed to enter or remain in the program. You’ll also find in the table that some of the “hardest” subjects to get an A in are the pre-requisite courses for the nursing program. For example, to be considered for admission to the nursing program students must pass anatomy and physiology courses with a minimum grade of C. However, because of the competitive nature of admission to the nursing program, a student will have to have a GPA much higher than that of a C student to be admitted.

  • liz48170

    well, this somewhat explains why my kid, who scored a 34 on the ACT, and went to the #8 best high school (IB) graduating with honors entering Purdue with 29 credits towards his Purdue EE / CS degree, feels like he is getting his ass kicked at Purdue. He took 18 credit hours semester (Chem II, Eng Honors I, Calc I, English), and 18.5 credit hours semester II (Calc II/ Physics II / engineering honors II, CS Java. He pulled a B average, and feels really embarrassed and bad. I guess he will have to take a few easy A classes to bring up his average, as Purdue “tough love grading” makes the Purdue kids look dumb on paper as compared to other engineering kids from other schools.

  • Jana Jane Kim

    I have an A in Conceptual Chemistry.

  • Jana Jane Kim

    You’re right; Olivia Kago, the mixed girl, could have had Regular Biology. We had her get held back in Concept Biology because we didn’t want her to struggle.

  • Jana Jane Kim

    Olivia’s mom is from the Syrian Arab Republic and her dad is Japanese.

  • Jana Jane Kim

    Olivia looks mixed up. Arabs have dark skin due to mixing with Africans. Japanese have almond shaped eyes, giving Olivia a Japanese tint.

  • Jana Jane Kim

    Mixed generation is always confused. There is another mixed girl: Jenny, whose mom, Allie Muslu, is Turkish, and her dad, Daniel Sung, is from Korea. Jenny Sung is mixed.

  • Sami

    Double major in Math and Economics at IU commenting… Not surprised at all. However, I do appreciate the enlightenment!

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