Brown: Grade inflation poses serious risks to collegiate performance

By Simon Brown / Columnist

A much-publicized announcement by a senior academic administrator has given new meaning to the old alma mater, “fair Harvard.”

In early December, Harvard’s Dean of Undergraduate Education substantiated the accusations of hyper-competitive ivy-leaguers when she announced that the most common grade awarded in Harvard classrooms was an ‘A,’ while the median grade hovered close by at ‘A-.’

Besides motivating the highly informative “What would my Harvard grade be” webpage, this announcement has resuscitated a national discussion on the trend dubbed “grade inflation.” Since the mid-1980s, average grades at all universities and across all disciplines have consistently increased. But rather than unveiling some Ivy League conspiracy or the collapse of classroom expectations, these shifting numbers result from broader budgetary and administrative trends in higher education. 

While grade inflation has never been a secret, the “easy ‘A’” at Harvard — a name synonymous with rigor and exclusion — struck a national nerve. When the admissions office claims that only 6 percent of applicants to the school can succeed at Harvard, yet the university awards those select few who are accepted with more grades in the ‘A’ range than all other ranges combined, it doesn’t reflect well on Harvard’s meritocratic mystique.    

This loss of credibility has motivated peer institutions to take administrative steps to deflate the ‘A’ bubble. In 2004, Princeton mandated that no more than 35 percent of its distributed grades could fall within the A range. Now, after Princeton has seen fewer applicants than rivals Yale and Harvard, the president plans to reconsider the policy, since the tougher scale has “become part of Princeton’s image for applicants,” according to The Daily Princetonian, the university’s student newspaper.   

This trend presents two branding options for any university. By actively curbing grade inflation, they can ensure that their most successful students stand out above the mediocre, thereby granting their straight-‘A’s greater currency in the pursuit of jobs, fellowships and graduate degrees. If Harvard and Princeton admit that most of their students deserve ‘A’s on a regular basis, then they can’t claim that the education they provide is qualitatively different from one that grants only the best students the same reward. 

On the other hand, they could alienate prospective applicants by expecting the highest standards. And not just talented applicants, but those who would choose a college simply on account of easy grades. Even though they’ll never get accepted, their applications will still lower the all-important acceptance rate — the key to that coveted No. 1 ranking on U.S. News and World Report’s annual list of the country’s best colleges, which has fluctuated between Harvard, Princeton and Yale for years.  

No matter which branding strategy universities choose, it is clear that students’ diligence and intellect are not the only variables indicated by grades. And buried beneath all the reputations at stake in a single grade, from universities to departments to professors, each individual student is barely noticeable.

This anxiety about reputation doesn’t only allow universities to shrug their shoulders at the gaping grade bubble staring them down, it encourages instructors and departmental chairs to do the same. For non-tenured lecturers concerned about their ratings on OMET surveys, which could decide whether a tenure committee approves them or not, tough grading is not an option. 

What is more, a department hoping to maintain a steady supply of undergraduate majors — and the university budget allocation that comes with each student — might not find much incentive in encouraging its instructors to give only 35 percent of students ‘A’s. This could explain the department-by-department grading distributions that some claim can further complicate the dilemma. 

It should come as no surprise, then, that grades first started inflating in the mid-1980s, alongside two simultaneous trends in higher education: plummeting state funding and the first numeric college rankings. As departmental budgets contracted and universities began competing for applicants, instructors and administrators had no choice but to shed their rigid grading standards in the race for students. And now that tenured professors are slowly going extinct, appealing to students rather than challenging their intellect will only become more common.

But is it their intellect they’re supposed to be challenging? Or is it their work ethic and resolve? Maybe it’s their willingness to learn. As outraged as some may be at the grading system’s laxity under so many pressures, none seem able to decide what a grade actually should measure in ideal conditions. 

The knee-jerk answer seems obvious: student performance. But if every year a university admits more students with greater preparation to perform well on examinations — say, Pitt, which boasts application pools with increasing GPAs and SAT scores each year — shouldn’t the grades increase across the board? And would the university be providing a better education proportional to the incoming class’s merits if that were the case?  

To address grade inflation, it will take more than an arbitrary percentage prescribed by a board of professors. If grades can express something meaningful, their inflation will only be sustainably addressed with a funding mechanism within which professors need not rely on some students’ approval to protect their careers. At the same time, universities ought not rest their reputations on the approval of potential applicants looking for easy ‘A’s — which some schools are eager to supply. 

Ultimately, they will have to weigh their obligations to potential applicants against their current students, because too many universities are failing these obligations, especially when they never fail their students. 

Write Simon at [email protected].