Don't Cap Excellence

Princeton's plan to limit high grades does not make sense

For years now, the grade-inflation hot seat has been almost exclusively Harvard’s to fill. Unflattering articles, television spots, even “20/20” maestro John Stossel have all lamented the steady rise in marks at America’s premier academic institution. But last Wednesday, Princeton grabbed some headlines of its own when the university announced its plan to deal with grade inflation at its New Jersey campus. We are glad that other schools are finally admitting that they, too, give out a lot of A’s—the PR problem, which diminishes the value of Harvard credentials, won’t just be Harvard’s to deal with anymore. But we don’t think Princeton’s proposal makes sense.

Obviously, A’s are abundant. A Princeton study found that 44 to 55 percent of grades at 11 elite colleges were in the A-range. And, even though nobody has proven that this is particularly detrimental to undergraduate education, the centerpiece of the Princeton’s plan is a cap the number of A-pluses, A’s and A-minuses awarded to undergraduates. If it passes an April 25 faculty vote, the cap would hold A-range grades to less than 35 percent of all grades given. If this sounds familiar, that’s probably because Harvard’s anti-grade-inflation crusaders have already proposed similar caps here in Cambridge. Indeed, though the College hasn’t adopted such a policy for undergraduate grades, rumors of formal caps on grades in particular classes already abound.

Caps such as these, though, are the wrong way to deal with grade inflation. In the drive to do something about the A’s that seems to be proliferating on top campuses around the country, advocates for grade deflation at elite colleges have proposed plenty of cosmetic solutions that don’t do anything to solve the root of the problem but do a lot to hurt students. Caps are among the worst of these.

First off, the quality of students at schools like Princeton and Harvard is high and, often, most students fit into the top tier. To try to enforce some kind of bell curve is illogical. Rather than properly distributing grades, a bell curve forced on campuses like Harvard and Princeton makes minute mistakes dramatically important in an effort to differentiate between students. It also means some students get graded poorly for good work so that quotas are met.

Furthermore, students should be graded on the quality of their work independently of one another. If a student earns an A-grade—a measure of excellence—he should not be denied that grade just because another student was slightly more excellent. Grades should be determined by specific criteria that a professor sets, not by who beats the other kids in section. Otherwise, college becomes unnecessarily cut-throat—certainly not an atmosphere conducive to real intellectual development.

At the top colleges in the country, you will find the top students. Many of them not only possess incredible abilities, but a desire to put out the finest work they can. This will tend to produce a number of high grades, usually well-earned. A little media scrutiny and crank opposition from faculty and administrators should not force universities into changes that are harmful to these top-tier students. Princeton and other schools struggling with grade inflation should see that students get what they actually deserve, not the grades the grade deflators think they do.