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(A+)bove but (B-)elow Average

By Garrett M. Lam

Consider a school where students only pass or fail. After a semester ends, the material-masters complain they’ll appear equal to the barely-passers when they apply for jobs. So the professors turn grades into A through D, and F (with pluses and minuses for extra acuity). They figure this will also motivate harder work and give students more useful information about strengths and weaknesses. Now, the low scorers complain they’re missing opportunities because a D replaces a P. The professors, wanting them to succeed or maybe frustrated with low, mark-influenced ratings, boost the average GPA so the distribution ranges from B-minus to A.

To me, this scenario captures three main purposes of the grading system. First, grades offer discrimination. They let interested parties—employers, admissions offices, scholarship committees—evaluate competence and distinguish candidates. They also offer motivation. Those who could previously drift through class and earn the same mark as top students now lose the safety net of ambiguity. Finally, grades offer self-evaluation. They allow students to judge their capacity and mastery in a certain field.  This example also captures the emergence of grade inflation—it appears to make people better off. The professors are happy with higher course ratings, and the students are happy with higher marks and more opportunities because of them.

But consider the students from schools that don’t inflate grades and the employers they’re approaching. When the average GPA at Harvard is a 3.45, compared to a 3.31 at Wellesley, 3.28 at Princeton, or 2.99 at Iowa State, many employers will judge the same grade from different schools incorrectly, since they reflect different degrees of mastery. You might only need to be in the 80th percentile to get a 3.8 at Harvard, but in the 90th at Wellesley. Students from non-inflating schools may fare worse during recruitment since they appear less competent, and employers may fare worse since they’re more likely to hire less qualified applicants.

You might argue that grades are absolute; the fact that most “grade-inflating” schools are selective, private universities shows that higher averages are due to harder working or more intelligent students. Even if it’s true, we’d need to standardize curricula across colleges to measure it, so any GPA would reflect a quantified level of mastery. This task is just impractical.

On the other hand, when grades are comparative, they offer clear information: how does this student perform in relation to others? And since curricula aren’t standardized, the most informative comparison comes from within a school—how does this student, given that he goes to Harvard, perform relative to his peers? Right now, employers see higher average GPAs at selective schools. They assume that the students are more competent, too, since a selective school accepted them. So they’re counting reputation for twice its worth. If colleges normalized GPAs, all students in the 75th percentile of their class would have the same GPA, and employers would more accurately identify those with true proficiency. So we wouldn’t unfairly double-dip the prestige chip.

In addition to decreasing equality and removing transparency from recruitment, grade inflation dampens motivation. Too many students at Harvard pick courses because course evaluations deem them an easy A. And once these students enroll, few besides the internally driven have any encouragement to learn once they have studied enough to get an A. Grade inflation allows students to achieve high grades through minimal effort and offers little incentive to exert more than that minimal amount.

But the hardest part of addressing grade inflation is convincing people who receive it that they’re worse off. After all, grade inflation works—research shows that it creates more post-graduate opportunities. I can say only this: Job placement alone is a superficial indicator of success, especially if the reasons for placement arise from ignorance about grading standards. I think more informative statistics would capture mid-career success and employer satisfaction; yes, you landed an opportunity, but were you able to meet the expectations that your transcript created? Grade inflation leads to job placement for possibly less qualified applicants, and I imagine they’d do better by pursuing a job for which they have an actual advantage, for which their expertise isn’t exaggerated on paper. And if grades were normalized across colleges, they’d be more likely to land that job, too.

Grade inflation belies the purpose of grades. It crams a 0-4.0 bracket into a 3.0-4.0 one, making it harder to discriminate between similar candidates from the same school (and can we please not try to maintain precision by introducing the A-+ and the A--?). It disadvantages candidates from non-grade-inflating schools and tempers motivation to learn beyond a now easier-to-achieve A, impeding the very learning that college propounds. In his 2012 Wellesley High School commencement speech, author David McCullough, Jr. noted that we have “come to love accolades more than genuine achievement” for cheap self-affirmation and career-leverage. The prevalence of grade inflation embodies this mentality, where schools pump helium into grades for students happier to take career-boosting marks than earn accurate indicators of competence. Colleges aren’t showing students what it’s like to fail, so they aren’t teaching them what it’s like to truly succeed.

We at Harvard shouldn’t condone this culture of grade inflation because it’s one we’re the superficial beneficiaries of (and if you chose Harvard over Princeton because of its grade-inflation, please reflect on what you’re trying to do here). We should endorse a system that actualizes the purpose of grades and aims of education. So let’s follow in the steps of places like Princeton and Wellesley. Let’s deflate this culture so our successes aren’t artificially elevated by accolades that come from without, but grounded by the talent we have from within.

Garrett M. Lam ’16 is a Crimson editorial writer in Lowell House.

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