Grade Inflation Becomes an Educational Fact of College Life

Gone are the days of the Harvard "gentleman's C."

"A C is a flunking grade now," says President Emeritus Derek C. Bok.

Much like inflation in the economy, grade inflation is a phenomenon that Faculty and students at the College seem to accept as an inevitable fact of life.

"In an ideal world, you probably wouldn't have it," says former Dean of the College L. Fred Jewett '57.

Over the last few decades, the Faculty has done little to curb grade inflation, often attributing the better marks to the increased quality of students entering Harvard in recent decades.


But continuing grade inflation has its impact on other areas--including the awarding of honors degrees and competitive fellowships--and has led administrators to think twice about the meaning of academic excellence.

"An A means less than it once did," says former Dean of Undergraduate Education Lawrence Buell. "A B means so much more that many people hate to give it, at least in the humanities."

During recent deliberations over honors recommendations for graduating students in the Department of Anthropology, outgoing Dean of Undergraduate Education David Pilbeam says he and his colleagues discovered that students' grades did not reflect their academic merit.

"We didn't really have many students we thought were truly excellent, although many of them had excellent grades," he says.

Faculty members say that the continuing inflation of grades has led to a closely related phenomenon--what they term "grade compression"--since academic marks at the College can only go up so far.

"The number of niches on the Harvard grading scale that Faculty regularly use and...students consider honorable has been shrinking," Buell says.

The major problem of grade compression is the resulting difficulty in distinguishing very good academic performance from excellent academic performance, according to Faculty members.

"We have no way of distinguishing on our grade sheet between truly exceptional and just a skin-of-your-teeth A," says James E. Davis, head tutor of the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology.

"Every so often I would love to give the A+ to the exceptional student," Davis says, referring to a grade that Harvard does not permit instructors to give. "But there's no way I can reward that gradewise."

But many professors say they believe that grade inflation is limited to the middle range of the grade scale.