Grade Inflation: Maybe Unfair, Probably Just

Before I left school last fall, I graded one set of students’ papers in my role as a graduate instructor at UC Berkeley. It was a basic paper assigned in an introductory sociology course, so I assumed that a competent, complete answer deserved an “A.” When I submitted my grades and sample papers for the professor to check, she demanded that I re-grade every single one. A’s, she insisted, are for excellent work that goes above and beyond the norm.

Four years at the finest undergraduate institution in the country, and I had no sense of the difference between exceptional work and simply complying with instructions.

I learned yesterday that Princeton will most likely be ending its experiment in “grade deflation.” Most of the endless discussion that began before I set foot on campus has centered on claims that the specific way grade deflation was implemented—namely, a 35%-A target for each department, with a stringent only-55%-A standard for junior and senior —was not “fair.” Maybe it isn’t: the stories about exams with A-‘s erased and replaced with B+’s certainly give that impression. “Unfair,” though, is the term you use when you feel you have a sense that you are not getting the advantages of others (i.e. students at Harvard or Yale) but have no deeper principle to back it up.

Since “fair” seems like an awfully subjective standard, and the faculty committee recommending an end to grade deflation put quite a bit of stock in such perceptions, I will offer my own. I’m reasonably sure that with a small bit of introspection, most of us—myself included—would admit that we received A’s for courses at Princeton where we did not exactly give it our all. I was shocked at the consistency with which I could get A’s by simply doing what I would have assumed, prior to coming to campus, would be the minimum—that is to say, doing the reading, starting my papers more than a night before they were due, seemingly vaguely interested in precept, and actually going to lecture. Yes, I was a sociology major—but, then again, sociologists were more “deflated” than Woody Wu majors and had lower grades to begin with.

Most Princeton students, apparently, would not agree with me. According to the grade deflation committee’s survey of students, 80% of Princeton students believe that they have at least “occasionally” had a grade “deflated,” and 40% think it has happened frequently. This must be a joke. The committee’s data suggests that the actual decline in grades due to the deflation policy was modest to non-existent. It’s mathematically possible but barely plausible to think that, during a period where average GPAs went up .05 points, 80% of Princeton students at some point received “B+’s” for “A-“ quality work.

Let me offer an alternative explanation: grade deflation is a good excuse. It’s a good excuse for students, of course, to explain why they are no longer effortlessly succeeding like they did in high school. More importantly, though, grade deflation was an excuse for professors, who could hold their highly entitled students to some kind of standard, while preserving their teaching evaluations through displacing blame onto a third party (usually Dean Malkiel).

What this last point gets at is that there’s much more at stake in grading than “fairness” within the university. Grade inflation is one aspect, although probably not a driving force, behind the ongoing transformation of American higher education. A recent experiment with grade deflation at Wellesley found that underperforming departments with underfunded students could compensate by pumping up their grades. Worse, grade inflation appeared to be a tool to mask racial disparities—that is to say, Wellesley dealt with concerns about its racial achievement gap by just offering artificially high grades to everyone. This is the Faustian bargain of modern higher education: professors, under the pressure of an increasingly competitive job market and rising non-teaching obligations, can reduce the quality of instruction by sating students with A’s and leaving them plenty of time for the real business of university life, which is to say, anything but learning.

Grade deflation is not just a matter of students’ feelings or fairness. It is an issue of justice – that is to say, the role of universities in either reinforcing or challenging structural inequalities. For one thing, as researchers like Annette Lareau have consistently shown, upper middle class students come to schools like Princeton not just advantaged in their academic skills, but also advantaged with extra-academic skills, particularly with respect to relating to authority and accessing services. Let me make this more concrete: we have every reason to believe that rich white kids are more likely to bitch about their B+ and get it raised to an A-. Working class kids are more likely to just take it, because that’s what we train working class kids to do—take what’s given to them.

Grade inflation not only worsens stratification within universities, but between them. Debates about grade deflation at Princeton nearly always contrast Princetonians’ GPAs to those of our “competitor institutions”—that is to say, the laughably high grades given out at Harvard and Yale. But Princeton students are not just “competing” with other Ivy Leaguers for Rhodes Scholarships and spots at U Penn Medical School. They are “competing” with other college graduates in the much broader universe of graduate school admissions and the labor market.

Most of Princetonians’ “competitors” come from public universities with lower grades. Although grades at public and private institutions were once comparable, and both have inflated grades significantly since the 1960s, private schools have done it more. This gap emerged precisely at the time that the position of expensive private colleges were threatened by well-funded, and cheaper, public ones. As one Dartmouth professors explained it, “we began systematically to inflate grades, so that our graduates would have more A’s to wave around.” It worked: admissions officers at graduate institutions systematically favor students who come from grade-inflated schools, even when candidates are otherwise equal. Although flagship public universities have subsequently followed suit, even after controlling for “talent level,” grades at private institutions are .1 to .2 points higher. The structural conditions of the modern public university–minimal face time with professors, huge classes, heavier reliance on testing over papers, pressures to weed out students universities can no longer afford to teach, less construction of students as paying private “consumers” who can be “dissatisfied”—makes bargaining for grades more difficult.

Of course, many Princeton students predictably insist that they produce better work than students at other institutions where grades are lower. But I find this utterly unimpressive. Princeton students have access to resources and instruction way beyond those of the vast majority of American college students. Shouldn’t our grades reflect what we, as individuals, make of the very real advantages that Princeton offers us, rather than, say, rewarding us for having those advantages in the first place?

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2 thoughts on “Grade Inflation: Maybe Unfair, Probably Just

  1. I graduated from The University of Texas in 1975. I taught at the University of Michigan and retired 2011. My personal opinion is there has been grade inflation through out the years.

  2. So what, do you think, is the solution? Increasingly, universities view their students as current customers and future donors, and so that old mentality “the customer is always right” becomes more and more pervasive. Having earned degrees at Northwestern University, Yale University, and what you call a “flagship public university” (i.e. University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill), I can say, from my relatively limited experience, that grade inflation at Yale was the worst. Whereas pre-med students at Northwestern fought each other tooth-and-nail to earn one of the 30% of A’s that would be given out, Yalies openly talked about how once they were in (to Yale), they didn’t have to compete anymore. In fact, a lot of the kids I went to NU with actually took summer science classes at Harvard, because word on the street was that the A’s were a lot easier to attain. From an even more limited perspective, the students at UNC seem to have the most grounded experience. Most of them are smart and hardworking, but not overly neurotic and obsessive (NU students) nor coasting on a wave of previously-earned glory (Yalies). To me, the real question is how do we as an institution encourage more appropriate grades when the competitors are giving out easy As?

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