The A’s Have It

Bemoaning inflation misses the picture

After yesterday’s report that the most frequently awarded grade by Harvard College is an A, the natural reaction will be to fault a blend of unwarranted grade inflation and lax teaching standards—implicitly assuming that the high grades are in no way the result of high-quality work but mostly, if not entirely, due to undeserved coddling of students.

The news came from the monthly meeting of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, when Dean of Undergraduate Education Jay M. Harris revealed that the median grade at the College is an A- and the most frequently given grade is a straight A.

That shouldn’t come as a complete surprise—admission to Harvard has become increasingly selective with each incoming class hailed as extraordinarily gifted. A commensurate gain in academic achievement should be more an expectation than a surprise. High grades could be an indicator of the rising quality of undergraduate work in the last few decades, due in part to the rising quality of the undergraduates themselves and a greater access to the tools and resources of academic work as a result of technological advances, rather than unwarranted grade inflation.

In the same way that directly comparing the price of a contemporary Cadillac to the $3,200 inflation-adjusted price tag of the original Model T would ignore the incredible gains in the quality of cars over the last 90 years, so too does comparing modern grades to the C average during the Eisenhower administration disregard significant differences in the College.

That’s not to say that this “grade compression” is not a legitimate concern that makes it harder to differentiate among students at the College. But that addresses the deeper question of what the purpose of grades is —whether grades should signify competence or comparison.  Before any action is undertaken this question needs to be answered by the University and the student body.

Establishing a rigid bell curve on grades or other equally clunky deflationary techniques would only make the already savagely competitive culture devolve into a Hobbesian environment. Furthermore, if there were already a problem of students self-selecting into easier classes, that pressure might strengthen with such policies and further stifle the culture of intellectual openness that is one of the most rewarding experiences for Harvard students.

Yearning for the halcyon days of depressed GPAs seems to miss the realities of a more economically diverse undergraduate student population that is more sensitive to the pressures of the modern job market. The post-recession mindset of students is already the source of much anxiety and to add the uneasiness of deflated grades would be unwise.

Even Princeton  is now considering a reversal on its policy that set a suggested cap on the number of A’s in order to lower GPAs. A recent study by researchers at the University of California-Berkeley provides evidence that employers are more likely to select applicants with a higher nominal GPA, even when presented with statistics on the difficulty of the school that the applicant attended.

While the unexpected frequency of high grades at Harvard may be somewhat jarring, there is not conclusive evidence that only grade inflation is to blame. In addressing this problem, Harvard should avoid making simple comparisons between the students in the Class of 2013 and its 1953 counterpart.

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