A Red Herring?
But is grade inflation really a problem? I would say that it is nothing more than a red herring. Far from being an urgent issue, grade inflation is at most a very small and easily correctible phenomenon that affects a small percentage of Faculty in a small percentage of departments.
Grade inflation would be a problem in several situations—if grades were so inflated that it became impossible for students to distinguish themselves from their peers, for example. Or if grades became so inflated that graduate schools, employers and fellowship committees were unable to discern the good, the bad and the ugly among students’ academic performances. Yet another scenario: grades became so inflated that students at other universities began to assume an advantage over Harvard students because their A’s were perceived as being more “legitimate” than ours. At Harvard, however, none of these cases even approach reality.
Grades are higher today than ever, yes. But it is not difficult at all for Harvard students to distinguish themselves academically. No matter how much grade inflation there is, for example, the number of summa cum laude graduates remains capped at approximately 5 percent of the class. No matter how much grades inflate, the number of Junior Phi Beta Kappa inductees remains 24. Even more telling, and something that surprises most people when they hear of it, is that last year graduating senior Kevin S. Schwartz ’01 (now a Marshall Scholar) was the first undergraduate in eight years to graduate with a perfect 15.0 grade point average.
If grade inflation were as bad as Mansfield and others would have us believe, one would expect a mountain of students with perfect GPAs. In reality, there has been only one in the last decade. The inevitable corollary to students being able to distinguish themselves as much as ever is that people are able to judge—without increasing difficulty or trouble—which students deserve entry to the best law, business, medical and graduate schools. One does not hear postgraduate admissions committees decrying grade inflation as making their lives difficult, because it is not doing so. Is Yale Law School suddenly finding itself unable to tell which Harvard students it wants to accept because everyone now has stellar grades? Is Harvard Medical School now admitting hacks that we shouldn’t trust to bandage a scraped knee, let alone perform open heart surgery? I think not.
Harvard’s grade inflation would also be problematic if grades were run up so much that a grade here was not regarded as equal to the same grade at other institutions. This is not now a problem, nor ever will it ever be, since to whatever extent it does exist, grade inflation is a national problem, and not one indigenous to Harvard. Unfortunately, we hear more about inflation here than an other institutions because of certain highly vocal gadflies in our faculty, and also because of what Ross G. Douthat ’02 labeled “The Harvard Syndrome” in his Nov. 5 column in The Crimson. Douthat referred to jealousy and corresponding feelings of antipathy by people outside Harvard, each with their own personal axe to grind against our fair University. In reality, people in positions of authority (employers, fellowship committees, etc.) indicate by their actions that they do not consider our grades any less impressive than similar grades attained by students at other colleges—in fact, quite the contrary. As evidence, one need look no farther than Harvard’s traditionally disproportionate number of Rhodes and Marshall scholars, of students at the best law and medical schools and of young analysts and consultants at the most prestigious financial firms.
Admittedly, the above examples deal with students at the very top of the class. It could be argued that the brightest students will shine no matter what, and that grade inflation is more a problem for students in the middle of the class, between whom it becomes impossible to draw distinctions when grades are inflated. To this I respond that a bell-curve shaped distribution, with a concentration of grades in the middle, is only natural. Indeed, grade inflation’s most virulent decriers still advocate such a distribution, only centered around a C rather than a B or B+. But as long as the grades at the very top are rarefied, it makes little difference whether the curve is centered around a B or a C. Most people, when discussing grade inflation, seem to assume that because grades are higher these days, there is by definition an exigent issue. Some reflection on whether grade inflation causes any real, substantive problem would do good for everyone involved.
Z. Samuel Podolsky ’04 is a Classics concentrator in Currier House.