While the existence of grade inflation in the American system of higher education is well documented, the argument that student entitlement drives this dynamic remains unproven. Drawing on an abductive analysis of twenty-nine in-depth, semi-structured interviews conducted by undergraduate co-authors, this study addresses these questions: (1) How do undergraduates on one elite campus understand the meaning and function of the grades they have received in college and (2) Do these students think that grading practices impact their undergraduate learning experience, and if so, how? Our results show that entitlement is not a fixed generational attitude so much as a conditional sentiment that individual professor’s grading practices can either disarm or inflame. Our study extends qualitative inquiry on students’ perceptions of grades and develops a student-centered “peer-to-peer” method that can be applied to a wide range of other issues in the sociology of higher education.


Elite Universities, Grades, Sociology of Higher Education, Student-Centered Qualitative Research Methods, Discourse Analysis, Consumerism in Higher Education

Author Bio(s)

Clara S. Lewis teaches in the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University. She is the author of Tough on Hate? The Cultural Politics of Hate Crime (Rutgers University Press, 2014). Her current work, Dangerous Shame: Denial, Trauma, and Infanticide on an American College Campus, focuses on maternal violence in the United States. Correspondence regarding this article can be addressed directly to: cslewis@stanford.edu.

Breanna Williams graduated from Stanford University in June 2017 with a B.A.H. in Psychology and a minor in Public Policy. During college, she developed a passion for issues related to psychology, achievement, and the student experience. She is currently a first-year student at Harvard Law School pursuing a J.D in hopes of ultimately working in education policy.

Minkee Sohn graduated from Stanford in 2017 with a degree in Communication. He currently works as a data consultant in San Francisco.

Tamara Chin Loy is the program associate of the Domestic Violence Programs at the Center for Court Innovation. Prior to joining the Center, she worked as a consulting editor for The Representation Project and worked on educational initiatives related to sexual health and sexual violence prevention at Stanford University. Tamara holds a B.A. in Human Biology with an Area of Concentration in Gender, Sexuality, and Society.


This work was produced in collaboration with Undergraduate Research Fellows, Minkee Kim Sohn, Breanna Della Williams, Tamara Chin Loy, and Erik Holmvik and supported by a research award from Stanford University’s Program in Writing and Rhetoric.

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