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Dissent: The Cost of Easy A’s

By Aden Barton, Kanishka J. Reddy, and Ivan Toth-Rohonyi, 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.

These days, it feels like there’s a new grading system in place at Harvard. Although not officially declared, Harvard’s grade inflation models a shadow pass-fail system — students consider an A or A- as passing and regard a B+ or below as failing.

Despite a clearly distorted system, the Board argues that grade inflation is not only unproblematic but even beneficial. It is not surprising to see students welcoming higher grades. But such an approach is short-sighted and worsens our educational experience.

For one, grade compression — a direct consequence of grade inflation — discourages academic exploration. When GPAs are inflated, the cost of a stray A- or B+ becomes much higher. While a hard-working student might be guaranteed an A- in any field, it is easier for them to get an A in a more familiar subject. Students become averse to broadening their subject horizon. This is antithetical to a liberal arts education.

A compressed system is also unfair. A narrow grade distribution especially penalizes those in the middle since students in the 70th and a 40th percentile are probably given the same grade: an A-. Moreover, since almost 80 percent of grades are in the A-range, those who truly excel are not differentiated from those who are simply competent.

The Board also argues that grade inflation might alleviate students’ stress in an already-competitive academic environment.

This is simply not the case. Grade inflation causes maniacal and time-wasting rat races. Since students consider grades below an A to be substandard, they spend countless hours on each percentage point leading up to an A. Here, students’ focus is not on mastering the material for the sake of competency, but increasing their grades through trivial distinctions.

Moreover, supporting grade inflation on the grounds that it will reduce stress is akin to supporting inflation thinking one’s groceries will be cheaper.

Grades gain meaning from their comparative nature since an A is impressive only if other students did worse. Graduate school spots and job offers are ultimately zero sum, so any competency-based system will be used by admission offices and employers to compare students, no matter the intent behind the grading.

Of course, grades should never serve as the sole metric of comparison. Other application components — essays, test scores, letters of recommendations — are important in getting a full picture of the candidate. But since transcripts will inevitably influence student outcomes, grading should reflect relative effort and talent, which cannot effectively occur alongside inflation.

We agree with the Board that grade inflation encourages a focus on activities outside of class. Indeed, empirical research has found that grade inflation reduces study time. But that competition is no less stress-filled, since, on the day of the interview, you’re compared against your classmates. The result is just as much stress but much less learning.

Comparative grading, by contrast, incentivizes excellence because students are assessed on how differentiated they are. Put simply, hard grading is good grading. A more flat grade distribution requires students to truly master the material to do well since they’re compared against the best of what other students have to offer.

Resolving these problems is difficult given that we’re not able to understand the issue fully since most data on grades are unreleased. As such, we think Harvard should immediately make the recent Faculty of Arts and Sciences report and the underlying data public.

Ultimately, to solve grade inflation, we need to resolve the underlying dynamics that pushes grades higher. One likely channel is the incentive for professors to grade easily in hope of better student feedback. Indeed, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences report noted a “direct correlation between expected grades and Q ratings.” We applaud the decision to weigh student feedback less heavily in teaching awards.

More broadly, Harvard should consider methods to flatten the grade distribution without overly harming student outcomes or increasing anxiety. Deflation is always painful, but returning to a grading system with more than three possible grades will be better for the student body in the long run.

Ivan Toth-Rohonyi ’25, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a Sociology and Computer Science concentrator in Adams House. Kanishka J. Reddy ’24, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a Government concentrator in Adams House. Aden Barton ’24, an Associate Editorial Editor, is an Economics concentrator 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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