Faculty Tackles Grade Inflation

Harvard is about to enter a new phase in its battle against grade inflation.

By tomorrow, all of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ departments must report on their grading practices to the Educational Policy Committee (EPC)—the body that advises the Faculty on most curricular matters.

The departments’ reports will inform the EPC’s discussion this spring of how to best bring grades down from their lofty heights. By the end of the spring, the committee hopes to present the Faculty with concrete proposals.

And as the Faculty begins this new investigation, professors widely agree that Harvard’s grades are inflated. But they hold varied opinions on why and to what degree these high grades present a problem.

As data released by the Faculty this fall shows, grades at Harvard are higher than they have ever been. Over half of the grades distributed among undergraduates last year were in the A-range, and during the last 16 years, mean grade point averages have risen a full point.

But high grades do not automatically indicate inflated grades, many professors say.

“I am very committed to the view that there should and can be courses where there are lots of assignments that are hard, students learn a lot and all get A’s,” says Christine M. Korsgaard, Porter professor of philosophy and chair of the philosophy department.

But instead, most professors define grade inflation as a lowering of professors’ standards in evaluating work.

Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68 summarizes the phenomenon as “giving higher grades for the same work for which in the past one would have given lower grades.”

Lewis says he believes that this is what has happened at Harvard—a sentiment shared by the roughly three dozen Faculty and administrators interviewed for this article.

The Crux of the Problem

Those Faculty who do believe grade inflation is a pressing concern say inflated grades lead to a compressed grading scale.

“We have lost some grades that I think students would see as meaningful grades, like B-minus and C-plus,” says Dean of Undergraduate Education Susan G. Pedersen ’81-’82. “Having a whole pile of grades that mean the same thing and four grades to do all the work—that’s our problem.”

Such a compressed range of grades leads to two different problems in the eyes of professors.

First of all, some note the difficulties a compressed range of grades presents for differentiating among students—in their minds a critical responsibility of universities.

Former Dean of the Faculty Henry A. Rosovsky says discriminating among students of different caliber is Harvard’s “professional obligation.”