Grade Inflation Debate Misses the Picture

A little bird apparently told Professor Harvey C. Mansfield ’53 that the most common grade awarded at Harvard is an A-. According to Dean Harris, that bird was misinformed. It’s actually an A.

The notion that Harvard awards more A’s than it does any other grade has sparked a heated debate. People tend not to like it when other people get things they don’t deserve, and so the debate has centered on whether students at Harvard actually merit their A’s. That conversation reflects a misplaced and self-defeating emphasis on statistical excellence. Grade inflation and the current GPA system detract from intellectual enrichment, and that is their primary failure.

Perhaps the most seemingly salient problem stemming from the apparent grade inflation at Harvard is that the system fails to discriminate among candidates with various levels of competency or skill. It seems ridiculous that the most common grade in any population would be an excellent one—everyone can’t possibly excel in relation to everyone else. Such an argument is often market-driven: grade inflation, argue some commentators, robs potential employers of the ability to make well-informed hiring choices. Grade inflation could also inhibit hard work: Truly exceptional work is arguably devalued, and students might not work as hard as they otherwise might if they already know they’ll get a good grade.

These are all reasonable arguments, but they assume that grades should (and can) reflect something valuable. Otherwise, students wouldn’t strive toward the highest possible grades, and employers wouldn’t care about them. So why do we all want A’s?

The notion that a traditional grading system can accurately reflect differences in student achievement or knowledge—either within or across populations—is utterly false. Our GPA system, in all its inflated glory, compares students as if they had followed academic programs of equal rigor, depth, and breadth. This may work in most secondary school environments, in which nearly all students do follow a similar program, but it doesn’t make sense in a modern university. Students at Harvard and in most universities travel vastly different academic paths. They take classes of varying difficulty and with professors of different temperaments and expectations. Some seek out tougher classes at risk of lower grades, while someenroll in classes in which they know they can excel. Others still take more classes outside of the fields in which they are most comfortable. Grades do not reflect these variables. Our GPA disregards much of what makes our experience unique.

Following this logic, some may be tempted to get rid of grades altogether. That’s probably misguided. Grades can serve as powerful, if highly imperfect, tools of evaluation—both for oneself and in the marketplace. Eliminating grades would also be a major change that Harvard might be hesitant to make. Given that we’re probably stuck with grades, we should at least have a grading system that fosters both intellectual growth and rigor. I really can’t see how grade inflation does anything but the opposite.

Intellectual growth requires taking difficult classes outside of one’s comfort zone—which is exactly what our grading system discourages. As Dean Harris tells us, an A- is “average” at Harvard. If we’re being honest with ourselves, most Harvard students are overachievers:They don’t want to think of themselves as “below average.” This can (and certainly sometimes does) yield positive results—students may work harder to get an A if they feel that they will otherwise be statistically behind the curve.

The possible negative effects of grade inflation, however, greatly outweigh this positive. Students who feel that they need to get an A- just to be average may be less willing to take classes that challenge them or expand their horizons. Motivated by a belief that GPA informs future success and a fear of underachievement, these students may miss out on fascinating and highly enriching classes from which they otherwise may have learned a great deal. Classes rated as difficult on the CUE Guide risk being avoided when other classes offer near-guaranteed As, so TFs and Professors might feel pressured to make their courses easier. For individual students, the result of such a trend would be a dampening of intellectual exploration and an academic experience without true challenge or diversity. Certainly many students do not fall into this trap—but grade inflation encourages that fall.

The single best class I’ve taken at Harvard was also the most challenging, and I’m not getting an A. Before taking the class, I remember reading the CUE and feeling somewhat apprehensive. Looking back now, one comment stands out: “It’s one of the hardest classes at Harvard that I have taken, but it’s still worth it.” Grade inflation, among other factors, necessitates the qualifying “but.” The difficulty of the class should be seen as a positive factor, as something that makes the class worthwhile—not as something the class must overcome in order to be relevant.

So long as many students see a B as something unthinkable, the grading system at Harvard will dampen the quality of a Harvard education. Reducing grade inflation is a necessary step toward amending that problem.

John A. Griffin ’16, a Crimson editorial writer, is a History and Literature Concentrator in Lowell House.

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