Popping the Inflation Myth

Princeton is deflating its grades at a high cost to its academics and its students

As Princeton continues to trim the fat off of its slightly plump grade distribution, we hope Harvard is wise enough to avoid the same diet. Last Monday, Princeton Dean of the College Nancy W. Malkiel announced that the college was halfway toward its final goal of systematically reducing the number of A’s doled out by professors. The percentage of A-range grades issued by Princeton’s faculty fell from last year’s 46 percent to the current 40.9 percent, less than 6 percent shy of meeting the long-term goal of 35 percent. The Princeton Faculty Committee credits this “success” to last April’s controversial grading guidelines.

With such an emphasis on cosmetic statistics, Princeton students are already complaining that these grading guidelines are morphing into virtual caps on the number of A’s given by professors. Though only “guidelines,” their ultimate effect is to create arbitrary distinctions between equally high-quality work. The only proof of any progress in grade deflation lies in the grades themselves. Princeton professors shouldn’t be told how to grade their students, nor should they be virtually required to make distinctions between talented students that don’t actually exist. Instead, they should be encouraged to continue rewarding equally excellent students with equally excellent grades.

At Harvard, where some large classes already impose such caps, this 35 percent would represent not only a meaningless distortion of student success but also a deterrent for dedicated students. Under grade guidelines, shopping classes and sections would become exercises in pinpointing the least intellectual and experienced students—with whom to compete for the rare, coveted A—instead of searches for the classes with the most thought-provoking material and the best lecturers. Liberal arts colleges, like Harvard, are supposed to discourage such grade obsession among their students and promote engaging intellectual discourse and education above all else. Were Harvard to follow Princeton and push for administrative intervention in grading standards, students would no longer ignore the numbers.

Princeton’s grade guidelines also place students’ futures at risk. Senior Princetonians applying to graduate schools and post-college jobs will be handicapped by systematically lower GPA’s. These deflated numbers presage deflated opportunities. Since the grade deflation movement is not a national movement among colleges, there will be consequential grade discrepancies between hard-working students from colleges with and without grading guidelines. In the gray area between a successful and an unsuccessful application, Princeton students will lose out on average.

At Ivy League schools, it is hard to quantify excellence as a relative measure because so many of us are legitimately “excellent.” That’s why we’re all here, right? A high number of A-students does not necessarily denote grade inflation; nor does it diminish the value of Ivy League credentials. Princeton and any other schools considering joining the battle against “grade inflation” should think hard about whether their students can really be ranked on a bell curve. More likely, they are just lucky enough to have the hardest-working and most intelligent students in the country at their schools. Professors seem to realize it—and administrators should too.