Where Are My Inflated Grades?

Fall semester course reports are now available, once again proving that Harvard doesn’t have a “grade inflation problem.”

A small sector of the conservative Right (namely Kenan Professor of Government Harvey C. Mansfield Jr. ’53) is up in arms over the high percentage of high grades given to Harvard students. As is usually the case with anyone to the far left or right of the political norm, Mansfield is so maddeningly conservative that reporters feel compelled to grant him interviews, with the guarantee that he’ll say something infuriating to the general public. And of course, once his quotes began hitting the papers last year, public responses from the Harvard administration were necessary. And suddenly grade inflation was news.

Of course, the media has run wild with the story (as the media does with most stories that involve the word “Harvard”), giving the Movement Against Grade Inflation (lets call it MAGI) a six month life of its own, a life that doesn’t really exist due to its lack of supporters. Despite this pivotal fact, headlines spouting Harvard’s “severe problems” with grade inflation continue to surface well into the new year, giving further fuel to the Story that Refuses to Die.

Meanwhile, each morning at breakfast in the Harvard dining halls, strung out students look at each other over their newspapers and say, “Grade inflation? Are they kidding? Dude, my grades are not inflated.”

At a school with a cut-throat admissions department that only accepts about 10 percent of its applicant pool and maintains an average incoming SAT score of over 1500, it is not at all surprising that a large percentage of the student body might submit high quality work on a regular basis. The average student IQ around the sunny streets of Cambridge must be well over 150, so why is it a problem that with effort, an extremely talented student body can produce Grade A academic material?


The philosophy behind a quality admissions department in the first place is that talented applicants have a much higher chance of contributing positively to their academic and future environments than non-talented applicants. The Harvard student body has markedly improved in caliber over the past few decades, and not surprisingly, so have their grades. Good grades should be expected at Harvard. And yet that one ugly statistic keeps rearing its head in the media: “An astounding 50 percent of grades at Harvard are As or A-minuses.”

So what. Memo to the Boston Globe and CNN, and every other source in which I’ve seen this statistic quoted: If 50 percent of Harvard grades are As, 50 percent of grades are not As. Harvard students are regularly getting Bs. And, dare I say it, Cs. Overall student averages are still safely in the B-plus range. The grade gods can breath a sigh of relief, because given the context, there is nothing in these statistics worthy of press, let alone of alarm.

“It’s so hard to grade Harvard students,” one of my tutorial leaders commented in passing, feeling the pressure to grade us on a curve. “They’re all so smart.” And yet MAGI wants to lower student grades. This brings up a pivotal question in higher education: should college students receive the grades they deserve on a real scale, or grades decided by a bell curve and the competition of their fellow students?

If the latter is deemed correct, the consequences of giving Harvard students lower grades would be large, because when grades are based on curves, the emphasis shifts from one of academic excellence to one of academic competition, changing the meaning of grades from achievement to “winning.” I know this from personal experience.

I had the non-pleasure of taking a Mansfield class where the curve was pre-decided, and 10 percent of students received As. I knew from day one that the prodigy in my section who could recite international constitutions from memory was going to receive my section’s A. This was not motivating. I also knew that given my new-found grade competition, I would get an easy B by handing in papers I would classify as “adequate.” But no A, no matter what.

Grade curves equal grade competition, the last thing that already strung-out Harvard students need to grapple with. Our grades aren’t inflated; they’re realistic. Are there grade discrepancies between Harvard departments and classes that should be fixed? Yes. Is it odd that 90 percent of Harvard students graduate with honors? Yes, maybe giving automatic “honors” status to all thesis writers obscures the playing field. But does any of this constitute mass grade inflation that is deserving of a mini-media circus? Definitely not.

Students should receive the grades they deserve. If half those grades are As, so be it.

Arianne R. Cohen ’03, a Crimson editor, is a women’s studies concentrator in Leverett House.