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Dissent: When Everyone Gets an ‘A,’ What Does an ‘A’ Mean?

By Max A. Palys and Christina M. Xiao, Crimson Opinion Writers
Dissenting Opinions: Occasionally, The Crimson Editorial Board is divided about the opinion we express in a staff editorial. In these cases, dissenting board members have the opportunity to express their opposition to staff opinion.

The way students are getting A’s today, they might just be the smartest to ever do it. According to a Harvard report released earlier this month, the percentage of A-range grades given to College students has risen by almost 20 percentage points over the last decade. Average GPAs have risen from 3.41 to 3.80 over the last two decades.

The Editorial Board has waved this trend away as a non-issue. In their eyes, this rampant grade inflation is a good thing.

The Board’s argument is premised on viewing grades as reflective of competency as opposed to comparison. We agree. Receiving an A in a class should indicate individual mastery of class material, not relative performance. If one is interested in comparison, there are better systems of measuring relative academic performance than the letter grade system, such as class rank.

The Board, however, goes on to claim that grade inflation reflects increasing mastery by increasing numbers of students. If half a class receives an A, they say, that’s wonderful! Half of the students are competent, and the professor should be lauded.

Such a claim does not tenably follow from a starting point that values grades as measures of competency. The Board’s idealistic conclusion assumes that grades can still perfectly reflect competency, even as grade inflation — and its cousin, grade compression — dominate the learning space.

Instead, grade inflation and compression likely obscure grades’ measure of competency. Let’s be honest: As Harvard College students, we sometimes manage to receive A’s in classes without completing the requisite work or even trying to master the course content.

The Board points to Harvard’s robust club culture as a beneficial consequence of grade inflation: Students may spend their energies outside of the classroom. But this point further highlights the discrepancy between letter grades and the competence they should reflect. Harvard students seem to spend less time on their classes and more on their extracurriculars, athletics, and employment — yet their average GPAs continue to rise.

The devaluing of grades as proxies for competency is reflected in larger societal patterns. Over the last couple decades, the perception of college has become increasingly careerist. Facing a seemingly flailing economy and rising tuition prices, more young people across the nation are turning to careers that don’t require four more years of unpaid schooling.

For those who do decide to pursue an undergraduate degree, the financial calculus remains lodged in their subconscious. As competition for graduate school and employment prospects generally worsen, these students know that a transcript full of A’s is the cornerstone of their ability to compete. They’ve already taken a monetary hit in coming to college; it would be irresponsible not to set themselves up to recoup that loss after graduation.

In particular, the kind of student who is attracted to Harvard and all its prestige is likely driven by external markers of success. Put all these people on one campus and they will continue to chase the things they are told are worth desiring: good grades and six figures post-grad.

Financial and cultural forces thus incentivize students to pursue higher grades at the cost of their learning and academic exploration — choosing the notorious “easy A” over the rigorous course that expands the limits of their thinking every lecture. In turn, instructors, especially those early in their careers, are incentivized by student evaluations to provide more unchallenging, grade-inflated courses — reinforcing the difficulty for students to seek out intellectual development.

We have no inherent issue with more students receiving A’s. We agree that there theoretically exists a world where half of every class gets A’s, but grades still reliably represent competency; this is the ideal world that the Editorial Board argues from.

We’d love to live in this world. But the fact is that we don’t. Honest self-reflection on our own transcripts and motivations can tell us that.

Instead, we have yet to grasp exactly how close or far we are from this ideal world. As long as we can’t accurately judge the gap, letter grades might as well be an exercise in alphabet soup — meaningless to the employers or grad schools we seek to impress, and to ourselves as we attempt to justify our chosen college experiences.

Max A. Palys ’26, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Currier House. Christina M. Xiao ’24, a Crimson Editorial Chair, is a joint concentrator in Computer Science and Government in Eliot House.

Dissenting Opinions: Occasionally, The Crimson Editorial Board is divided about the opinion we express in a staff editorial. In these cases, dissenting board members have the opportunity to express their opposition to staff opinion.

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