The Myth of Harvard Grade Inflation

To the editors:

Last spring, my grades included a C, C-plus and B-minus. And in light of the recent debate (News, "Mansfield To Give Two Grades," Feb. 5), I am forced to wonder what I did to anger the grade inflation gods who supposedly consider Harvard their Mount Olympus. In a school that hands out A's, I must have done something drastically wrong to get these grades.


The truth of the matter is that grade inflation does not exist at Harvard the way Kenan Professor of Government Harvey C. Mansfield, Jr. '53 or others claim. I'll be the first to admit that yes, it does exist. Quite frankly, I am lucky that the C-plus mentioned above was not a D or F--I was definitely at the extreme left side of the histogram in that class.

Harvard grade inflation works so that you don't fail. As long as you put in a decent amount of effort, it is likely that you get something between A and C (although certainly there are exceptions). One could call that grade inflation and claim that it gives us an advantage against students at other universities. But somehow I doubt that things are much different elsewhere, or that Yale, Princeton or the University of Pennsylvania hand out very many failing grades. Small private institutions (including Harvard), where students pay quite a lot to attend, are not looking to fail students.

Furthermore, Harvard's grade inflation is not college-wide. I spent my entire first-year fall working day and night to get an A in Chemistry 10. While I did get the A, it was the last time I would get an A in a science course--I had worked excessively hard for that grade, and for me, the opportunity costs were too high. As I found with many science classes here, getting the A required sacrificing too much of the college experience. But if grade inflation really existed the way some claim, this episode certainly should not have happened. Maybe my experience has been the exception rather than the rule, but somehow, I don't think so.

Another caveat is that most classes here test knowledge through essays. Even in biology or chemistry, one will be confronted with short-answer explanations or molecules that must be synthesized from scratch. However, students at large public universities often take tests in multiple-choice format, a fundamental difference in testing that will lead to fundamentally different grading.

As a senior pre-med History of Science concentrator with roommates who are concentrating in Social Studies and Philosophy, I have seen a wide array of classes and feel that I have learned the Harvard system. Sometimes students do work very hard for top grades; sometimes we do little or nothing and still get top grades; and sometimes we put in a lot and the grade doesn't reflect that. If anything, Harvard's grading system is whimsical or unpredictable, not as generous as the 'grade inflation' theory implies.

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