From the Archives: Grade Inflation at Harvard

1946 Crimson
1946 Crimson

On Tuesday, Dean of Undergraduate Education Jay M. Harris stated that the median grade at Harvard College is an A-, prompting commentators the world over to criticize the perceived leniency of the College's grading standards. But this is not the first time such an outcry has occurred, nor is it likely to be the last. Below, Flyby presents a collection of news stories on grade inflation at Harvard over the years, from The Crimson’s archives.

May 14, 1975: Grade Inflation—Life Without Ds

“If you give a student too high a grade, it leads to kind of corruption...which is bad for him,” says professor of Government Harvey C. Mansfield.

Last June, over 82 per cent of Harvard undergraduates had achieved a cumulative course grade average of B- or better. In June 1969, only about 70 percent fared so well. Deeply concerned by the "high rate of increase" in Harvard grade-point averages, Henry A. Rosovsky, dean of the Faculty, brought the problem to the attention of the Faculty in November, calling for quick remedial action. Rosovsky pointed out that despite a decline in their SAT scores, Harvard students were receiving higher and higher grades. For whatever reasons, it was becoming obvious that more and more "A"s were being given out; many course curves had shifted rapidly upward until they reached a point at which there were virtually no grades below C.

October 29, 1976: CUE Hears Plan to Curb Grade Hike

The Committee on Undergraduate Education (CUE) yesterday considered a proposal that essentially would combat grade inflation by including with each student's grade on his transcript the number of students enrolled in the course and the median grade.

Francis M. Pipkin, chairman of the committee and assistant dean of the Faculty, yesterday introduced the proposal which he said met with unsympathetic response from faculty and student members of the group.

A letter outlining the proposal sent from Richard Diamond '76 to Dean Rosovsky, provoked the CUE to consider the recommendation.

June 10, 1993: Debating Grade Inflation

The longstanding debate over grade inflation re-emerged at the beginning of this year, in the academic pages of the Chronicle of Higher Education and an internal memo from Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education Lawrence Buell to faculty members.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Thomson Professor of Government Harvey C. Mansfield Jr. '53 quickly entered the debate. Known as "C Minus" to his students, the high-profile crusader against grade inflation was a natural to comment on the question.

In a January 14 interview with The Crimson, Mansfield attributed students' improving marks to affirmative action in the early 1970s.

"I think at that time professors were unwilling to give a C to a Black," he said to The Crimson.

December 13, 1994: Fight Against Grade Inflation Has Little Support

Although administrators have said that Harvard should be a leader in the fight against grade inflation, the Committee on Undergraduate Education has yet to take definite steps against the trend of rising grades.

Harvard's inaction comes in the wake of recent decisions at Stanford University and Dartmouth College to address the issue.

"Stanford has acted and Dartmouth has acted," Kenan Professor of Government Harvey C. Mansfield Jr. '53 said yesterday. "It's time for us to get off our duffs."

The average Harvard grade now floats between a B+ and an A-.

June 5, 1997: Grade Inflation Becomes an Educational Fact of College Life

Gone are the days of the Harvard "gentleman's C."

"A C is a flunking grade now," says President Emeritus Derek C. Bok.

Much like inflation in the economy, grade inflation is a phenomenon that Faculty and

students at the College seem to accept as an inevitable fact of life.

"In an ideal world, you probably wouldn't have it," says former Dean of the College L. Fred Jewett '57.

Over the last few decades, the Faculty has done little to curb grade inflation, often attributing the better marks to the increased quality of students entering Harvard in recent decades.

June 6, 2002: Faculty Tries To Combat Grade Inflation

Though the problem of grade inflation has been a perennial one for Harvard, it dominated the Faculty’s agenda this year, resulting in unprecedented changes that many hope will buttress the integrity of Harvard’s name.

The effort to curb grade inflation gained sweeping momentum this past November, a month after a feature in the Boston Globe called Harvard’s grading practices “the laughing stock of the Ivy League.”

The Globe story—which was picked up by news media nationwide—focused on the 91 percent of Harvard students who graduated with honors in 2001 compared to 51 percent of Yale and 44 percent of Princeton graduates. It also noted that half the grades awarded at Harvard last year were A-range grades.

After seven months filled with scores of reports and negotiations, on May 21 the Harvard Faculty did what seemed unlikely only a few months earlier—agreed.

May 9, 2007: Report: Grade Inflation Persists

Over half of the grades awarded to undergraduates last academic year were As or A-minuses, according to data released by Dean of the College Benedict H. Gross ’71.

The percentage of “A” grades awarded in 2005-2006 did not increase significantly from the previous year, when 48.8 percent of grades were As or A-minuses.

But the percentage of A-range grades has risen considerably over the past two decades: only a third of grades were As or A-minuses in the 1985-1986 academic year.

The mean of all grades awarded—which is not the same as the mean of all student grade point averages—for the 2005-2006 academic year was 3.45, and the median was 3.67.

—Compiled by Olivia R. Goldberg

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