Grade Inflation—Why Princeton Threw in the Towel

In my freshman year at Duke in the mid-1960s, C’s were still the most common grade in my courses, about equal to the total number of A’s and B’s combined.  In my first-semester freshman composition course, there were no A’s given, only two B’s, one or two D’s — and all the rest C’s.  The professor in question, a middle-aged man with a Harvard Ph.D. (who may have been a bit frustrated over having to teach freshman English) was stricter than most in his grading but he was by no means an extreme outlier. Later,  I recall reading in a student publication that the average grade for all courses given in the university was something like a C+.

In large, introductory courses taken by a substantial cross section of the student body the grade distribution at a typical college or university in earlier times might look something like this: A’s:15%, B’s:25%, C’s:45%, D’s:10%, and F’s:5%. In words, the meaning of the letter grades were given as: A=Excellent; B=Good or Above Average; C=Average or Fair; D=Poor; and F=Failing.  Like so many other aspects of American society and culture, things changed very rapidly on the grading front in the period of the late 1960s and early 1970s. It was then that what we now call “grade inflation” got its initial start and experienced its most rapid rise.

Documenting Grade Inflation

We have a pretty good sense of the trajectory of grade inflation at American colleges and universities through the extensive research of Stuart Rojstaczer — a retired Duke University geophysicist with a good head for numbers, who has been studying this phenomena for many years.  Rojstaczer believes that, like money, college grades are inherently subject to inflationary pressures, but in the pre-1960s era, his research shows, grade inflation was very modest:  From the mid-1930s through the early 1960s average grades in private American colleges and universities rose by only about .2 on a 4.0 scale, advancing from roughly 2.4 to 2.6.  Beginning in the mid-to-late 1960s, however, grade inflation took off and continued its steep rise for almost a decade.  Grades stopped rising in the late 1970s and continued in a holding pattern until the late 1980s, after which they resumed their long-term rise, which continues to the present (though at a much slower pace than in the late 1960s and early 1970s).  Since the 1960s, grades at private institutions, according to Rojstaczer’s calculations, have increased at an average rate of about .15 points per decade, and at an even higher rate at the most selective institutions.  Whereas C+ might have been an average grade at a selective private college or university in 1960, today at that same school the average might be closer to B+ (or even higher in some cases).  The inflation rate has been substantially less, Rojstaczer shows, at most public institutions, and it has been lowest of all at schools of engineering like MIT and George Tech.

Rojstaczer believes that grade inflation is a problem for a number of reasons.  First, the rise in grades has not been uniform across institutions or academic departments rendering comparisons of students from diverse academic backgrounds extremely difficult. An A in many humanities courses, where A-range grades are notoriously easy to come by, means a whole lot less than an A in a typically more demanding and more strictly graded course like organic chemistry or econometric analysis (where C grades are common and A’s much rarer).  An even more serious problem, Rojstaczer believes, is that of diminished motivation.  Grades have always been a way to motivate students to work harder, says Rojstaczer, but if even mediocre work receives high passing grades, students will not be motivated to realize their full potential.  (Rojstaczer cites statistics showing how little college students at even elite institutions like Duke do in terms of actual academic work).  A final harm, Rojstaczer believes, is the loss of ability to distinguish good students from the excellent and truly outstanding. When universities make it very easy to get the highest grades — as is the case with many of our most elite institutions that liberally hand out A’s — a ceiling effect is created that indistinguishably lumps together the better with the best.

It Wasn’t the Draft

Many reasons have been offered to explain the long-term trend toward ever more inflated grades.  One of the earliest and most persistent is that which stresses the effect of the Vietnam era draft exemption.  Since flunking courses and being even temporarily suspended from college could result in the revocation of a college student’s draft deferment, anti-war college professors, the argument goes, began passing students who otherwise would have failed their courses. Despite the popularity of this explanation it can explain only the tiniest fraction of the actual grade inflation that started in the late 1960s.

To begin with, most of the grade inflation at this time was seen in the increase in the proportion of grades in the A and B range, not in the elevation of the relatively small number of D and F grades to the passing C level.  Students who previously would have been granted passing grades of C (and thus in no danger of flunking out of college) now found themselves with even higher passing grades. No “draft fear” factor was involved here.  The grade inflation that began in the late 1960s, moreover, seems to have affected the grading of women students, both at women’s colleges and at coed institutions, just as much as male students.  Since women in the U.S., unlike in Israel, have never been subject to the military draft, the “draft fear” explanation obviously cannot apply to them.  Finally, a process of grade inflation very much like that in the U.S. occurred in a number of other advanced industrial countries where the Vietnam draft issue was never in play, and the causes of that inflation looked suspiciously like what existed in the U.S.

Canada presents perhaps the best example here.  Canadian universities have often used various kinds of standardized tests to substantiate academic achievement, but several provinces began to remove these requirements in the 1970s and a pattern of grade inflation remarkably similar to that in the U.S. followed.   A report published in 2007 by two Canadian researchers found the history and trajectory of the grade inflation situation of our neighbor to the north remarkably similar to our own: “We find significant evidence of grade inflation in Canadian universities in both historical and comparative terms, as well as evidence that it is continuing beyond those levels at some universities so as to be comparable with levels found in some American universities.  It is also apparent that the inflated grades at Canadian universities are now taken for granted as normal, or as non-inflated, by many people including professors who never knew the traditional system, have forgotten it, or are in denial.”

Not Racial Preferences Either

Another reason given for grade inflation that at best can only explain a trivial part of it is racial preference policy.  By accepting underqualified black and Latino students on competitive college campuses, the argument goes, pressure was put on professors by academic administrators to pass these students, and the professors meekly complied.  This explanation falters for the much the same reasons as the “draft fear” argument: 1) grade inflation went well beyond the passing of otherwise failing students to the raising of all grades, especially C’s to B’s and B’s to A’s; 2) the grade inflation was across the board and applied to all students, not just to a particular demographic group for whom professors were particularly solicitous; and 3) it occurred all over — in colleges and universities with very few black and Latino students just as in those with more substantial numbers (and even at Canadian universities few of which contained large Latino or black enrollments).

So why were grades inflated? My own explanation involves four factors, the first being most important in explaining the surge in grade inflation in the period of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the other three being important in explaining both the earlier spike and the resurgence of grade inflation in the period from the late 1980s to the present.

Teachers Lost Their Nerve

Vietnam era grade inflation in the U.S., I believe, was primarily driven not by any faculty opposition to military conscription but by the student upheavals of the period and the student demands for greater input regarding the course curriculum, course requirements, and ultimately course grading.  There was on the part of the college faculty and much of the college administration a loss of a sense of who was in charge and who was making the rules.  Cowardice in the face of student intimidation and a loss of a sense of the noble educational mission of the university were everywhere in evidence in this period as Allan Bloom has so well described in his still relevant The Closing of the American Mind, first published in 1987.

Former education secretary William Bennett has well captured this Vietnam era ethos in terms of the changes in college curriculum requirements:  “[There was] a collective loss of nerve and faith on the part of both faculty and academic administrators during the late 1960s and early 1970s [that] was undeniably destructive of the [college] curriculum. … When students demanded a greater role in setting their own educational agendas [colleges and universities] eagerly responded by abandoning course requirements of any kind and with them the intellectual authority to say to students what the outcome of a college education ought to be.”

Weak and Collapsing Authorities

There was also at this time a similar loss of nerve and authority in setting grading policy.  Faculty that had capitulated on the core curriculum requirements in the face of an often militant and aggressive student movement were simply incapable of displaying any backbone when it came to resisting pressures to inflate their own grades.  Higher grades would make for happier, less angry, more contented students it was hoped, following an appeasement strategy well known to students of international relations.  A similar strategy — one followed by both universities and state and local governments — emerged during this same period in the face of the widespread rioting in the black urban areas of America as the color-blind ideal that had so inspired the earlier Civil Rights Movement was cast aside to be replaced with an extensive program of educational and employment preferences collectively known as “affirmative action.”  In both cases once venerable standards were abandoned in an attempt to pacify and appease aggressive protesters and potential troublemakers.  The squeaky wheel got the oil. (Here was the real connection between affirmative action and grade inflation.  Both involved intimidation — by very different constituencies — and appeasement responses by weak, collapsing authorities, who abandoned older standards of rectitude and fair play to avoid what was seen as future trouble).

In addition to this intimidation-and-appeasement factor, grade inflation in both the Vietnam era and in more recent times has been furthered by three additional factors the most important being the widespread adoption of student course evaluations. Course evaluations have certainly had their upside.  They have enabled students choosing courses to learn from the valuable experiences of others what to expect from a particular professor in a particular course.  But especially for untenured junior faculty whose chances of tenure are often partially tied to their student evaluations and the number of students they enroll in their courses, student evaluations can be a real hurdle to advancement.  As a result there is often a powerful tendency by younger teachers and teaching assistants to try to raise student opinion of their teaching performance through easy grading.  The often unspoken quid pro quo is, “I’ll try to make you happy and give you the grades you want; you make me happy by giving me the evaluations I want.”  Being known as a “tough grader” is usually not the best way to boost one’s student approval rating.

The Rise of the Self-Esteemers

Another factor furthering grade inflation has been the self-esteem movement and the belief, widespread in certain circles since the 1960s, that having high self-esteem and a high opinion of oneself is a prerequisite to self-confidence and high achievement.  The fact that the claims of the movement are entirely bogus and that feeling good about oneself unconnected with one’s actual striving or achievement is usually a formula for indolence and lethargy — if not actual narcissism — hasn’t diminished the appeal of the movement to substantial sectors of the American public, including many university administrators.  “Give ’em high grades, make ’em feel good about themselves and they’ll come to love real learning and become more productive citizens” — this is the kind of thinking shared by the self-esteemers and a major ideological justification for continued grade inflation.  It is also a major reason, I believe, why American students, who in international comparisons have the highest self-esteem, lag so far behind those in many Asian countries in becoming top flight engineers and scientists.  It is why, too, so many of our cherished high-tech jobs go to foreign immigrants or to children raised in the U.S. by such immigrants (cf. Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother).

A final factor furthering grade inflation has been the enhanced competition for placement in selective graduate schools, professional schools and coveted corporate-sector jobs.  In an earlier age most of those who attended four year colleges ended their higher education with their undergraduate degree and moved on in their chosen career path, their undergraduate grades often having little effect on how successful they might be in their careers.  Only a very small portion of college graduates in earlier times attended graduate or professional schools and most employers were not terribly interested in the grades one earned during one’s college years.  Things began to change in the second half of the 20th century as more and more college graduates pursued education beyond their B.A. or B.S. degrees, and corporations sought out people with high cognitive abilities.  Whereas grades had earlier been seen primarily as a means of motivating students to work harder in their individual undergraduate colleges, for an increasing number of college students undergraduate grades took on a new meaning as a way of gaining entry to the more competitive graduate and professional schools and the more prestigious jobs in corporate America. The grades one received would be scrutinized by outsiders and compared to grades received by those attending rival institutions.

The inevitable result of this competition was to encourage inflated grades lest the grades from one institution look inferior to those from another.  Since sticking to the traditional C-average grading standard would put the graduates of one’s own college or university at a huge disadvantage compared to one’s peer institutions, there was a powerful incentive for colleges to keep up with their easier-grading competitors. The net result was a race to the grade-inflated top. Harvard led the way among Ivy League schools with the announcement not long ago that the average grade at Harvard College was an A-, while the most common grade given was a straight A.  Yale was not far behind with 62 % of its undergraduate grades reportedly in the A range.

Princeton Goes It Alone

College administrators are rarely known for their courage or single-mindedness.  Most are careerist bureaucrats who follow the Sam Rayburn rule: “to get along, go along.”  This is as true of Princeton — the institution with which I am most familiar — as at most other institutions, whether elite or otherwise.  But largely due to the unusually single-minded, tough-skinned, and persistent efforts of one determined administrative dean, Princeton for a period of a whole decade pushed back against the tide of grade inflation and actually achieved for a time a modest degree of success.  The fact that Princeton has felt itself compelled most recently to reverse course should not diminish our respect and admiration for all that was accomplished by the former Dean of the College, Nancy Weiss Malkiel, who had the right idea in containing runaway grade inflation, however unsuccessful she was in establishing a precedent that other institutions would follow.

Malkiel’s view of grade inflation was similar to that of Stuart Rojstaczer.  Its greatest harm, she believed, was in encouraging students to be satisfied with half-hearted effort rather than motivating them to achieve their full potential.  Having herself come of age at Smith College under the older grading system (where mediocre work would receive a C and not a B+ or A-), Malkiel was a firm believer in the motivational value of an honest grading standard where “average,” “above average,” and “excellent” really mean what they say.  In an interview in the New York Times in June of 2004, Malkiel explained why she was so strongly opposed to the grade inflation trend that had come to dominate so many American universities: “When students get the same grade for outstanding work that they get for good work, they are not motivated to do their best.”  With this basic conviction Malkiel was to lead a successful effort in 2004 to get Princeton’s then-president Shirley Tilghman and a majority of the Princeton faculty on board to halt the galloping trend to ever higher — and ever less meaningful — student grades.

Holding A’s to 35 Percent

In 2004 Princeton’s faculty senate passed a resolution calling upon all departments in the university to restrict the number of A-range grades given in undergraduate courses to no more than 35 percent of all the grades given.  It was a flexible standard — a goal rather than a rigid quota — but pressure was clearly put on various departments, especially those that had wildly increased the proportion of A’s given out, to reign in their grade inflation.  And the new policy was at least a partial success in achieving its goal.  The proportion of grades in the A range (A+, A, A-) declined from 47 percent in the three-year period immediately preceding the Malkiel resolution to less than 42 percent in the 2010-2013 period.  A modest change perhaps, but when seen in the context of some of Princeton’s peer institutions, where A-range grades went on to represent 60 percent or more of all grades, it was a solid achievement, halting and partially reversing a seemingly inexorable trend that had gone on for four decades.

While the policy was welcomed by many faculty, especially older, tenured faculty whose position at Princeton was secure, among students, teaching assistances, and untenured faculty the policy was less favorably received.  Students in particular continued to voice their opposition in Princeton’s student newspaper, claiming that the policy increased stress and was unfair in the face of more lenient grading policies at other institutions with whose students Princeton students would have to compete for fellowships and positions in selective graduate and professional schools. Dean Malkiel, however, remained committed to the policy and held to her convictions despite increasing pressures to modify or abandon it.  It was for her a matter of both principle and wise pedagogy, and not an issue to be decided by its popularity among students.

Alas, in reversing the grade inflation juggernaut Princeton remained an outlier, and the hope of Malkiel and her supporters that Princeton would set a trend for other elite universities to follow was never realized.  None of the other Ivy League institutions followed the Princeton example, and to many prospective students and their parents Princeton became known as the “though grading school” whose grading policy would add to students’ academic stress and limit their ability to gain acceptance to prestigious graduate and professional schools.  On the latter issue, Princeton tried to allay fears by including with the undergraduate transcripts it sent out detailed descriptions of its tougher grading standards but it is not clear how much of a difference this made.  A study by Berkeley researcher Samuel Swift and his colleagues published in the respected online journal PLOS-one (July 24, 2013) indicated that even seasoned college admissions officers seem to prefer students with straight-A averages to those with slightly lower grades even when it is explained to them that those with the lower grades come from lower-grading institutions. “Decision makers,” the Swift team concluded, “take high nominal performance as evidence of high ability, and do not discount it by the ease with which it was achieved.”

Because of the continuing controversy over its grading policy, one of the first things Princeton’s new president, Christopher Eisgruber, did after assuming office last year was to appoint a faculty committee to look into the grading issue.  The committee issued its report in August of this year and recommended that the Malkiel policy should go, and that Princeton should, in effect, draw closer to its peer institutions in terms of how it grades.  Several reasons were given for the committee’s recommendations, including the testimony of Princeton’s dean of admissions Janet Rapelye, who explained the opposition to Princeton’s tough grading policy on the part of many prospective students and their families.  The committee also noted that students at some of Princeton’s chief rival institutions, including Harvard, Yale, and Stanford, “use our grading policy to recruit against us.”  While he had originally voted for the Malkiel reforms back in 2004, Eisgruber explained that things weren’t working out the way he and other supporters of the reforms had hoped and that it was time for a change.  In a column last month in the Princeton alumni magazine, Eisgruber wrote that “almost 10 years after its enactment [our grading policy has] remained a lighting rod of controversy and a considerable source of stress for many students, parents, alumni, and faculty members.”  “Regrettably,” he went on, “none of our immediate peer institutions followed our example in taking tough measures to address grade inflation. As a result, Princeton, which ought to be renowned for the unsurpassed quality of its teaching, was attracting more attention for the severity of its [grading] curve.”

Eisgruber strongly endorsed the committee’s recommendations and sent them on to the faculty governing body for final approval.  There is little doubt that the recommendations will largely be enacted and that Princeton’s experiment in resisting the inflationary grading trends of the times will come to an end. After 10 years of often heated controversy, and with some reluctance, Princeton on this issue has finally thrown in the towel.

Can Anything Be Done?

In the wake of Princeton’s failure the question naturally emerges as to whether anything more successful can be done to reverse the tide of grade inflation.  The short answer is, “probably not.”  Individual professors, to be sure, are still free to protest and can respond in their own creative ways.  One thinks in this context of the actions of Harvard government professor Harvey Mansfield who long ago decided to give his students two grades, one for Harvard’s ridiculously grade-inflated official transcript and the other for what the student had really earned in his class.  One can also envision a federal “Truth in Grading Law” where receipt of federal funding is made contingent upon institutions regularly publishing detailed statistical analyses of all the grades they have given for the past year broken down by departments, and further requirements that such analyses be included in all official student transcripts schools send out for all the years covered by the transcript.  Such a law would not end grade inflation, but it would add some desperately needed transparency to the current grading system.

If grade inflation is to be halted and ultimately reversed the only way I can imagine for it to happen would be for the presidents of many of the most prestigious colleges and universities to get together and form a permanent organization on grading standards.  Such an organization would produce a joint policy on what a typical grade distribution should look like and publish an annual report showing how well various colleges and universities had done in conforming to the recommended distributional template.  Publicizing and shaming the more egregiously non-compliant — i.e. those with the most inflated grades — would be part of any successful strategy.

I don’t hold out much hope for anything like such an organization actually coming into existence, but it is not entirely beyond the realm of possibility.  In its absence we will just have to resign ourselves to living with what we have. My instincts as a realist tell me that things aren’t going to change much any time soon.

5 thoughts on “Grade Inflation—Why Princeton Threw in the Towel”

  1. What are you thinking? Seriously. Have you ever stopped and thought about the system you are perpetuating? Good luck having a meaningful life as you try to split hairs to this degree. I am personally glad things are more lax for one reason—it simply doesn’t matter. People are rebelling against the grading system because the current system is how grades work best—as a stop gap. Truly, what you article doesn’t address is whether less learning has gone along with these higher grades. And ever source tells us that, actually, there is not deficit whatsoever in student learning as grade standards changed. The other issue that goes unaddressed: GRADES SHOULD NEVER BE THE MAIN MOTIVATION FOR LEARNING. And a good professor creates intrinsic motivation for learning through connecting to students, making the material interesting and relevant, creating a positive class atmosphere, and inspiring students. Moreover, this deficit model in motivation ignores other motivating factors, such as a student’s desire to have fun, explore, connect with a charismatic mentor who cares about them (the professor) and learn about the world. The sooner we realize what really matters and that students actually want to learn (once you stop punishing them), the sooner we will realize that there is a reason grades have mattered less and less—because millennials, unlike the baby boomers, have learned that competition, over-working, stress, and perfectionism are simply not central to a meaningful life. But learning is.

  2. It is the final explanation that is the answer, it is not about self esteem, course evaluations or weak authorities.

    It is about competition to get into further education. This is proven by the fact that the same phenomenon is now happening in high schools everywhere. The reason it is happening in high schools is because of the competition between all institutions of getting into undergrad programs and colleges. No teacher wants to be the barrier that prevents the admission of one of their students. No teacher wants their own students to be at a disadvantage, but at the same time teachers don’t seem to mind giving their students an advantage at the expense of students in other schools.

    It is tribalism: allegiance to one’s classes and one’s school to give their own an advantage at the expense of other classes and schools.

    The only real solution is standardized testing, which must be as objective as possible.

    1. I agree that standardized objective testing is the answer to grade inflation. What the common core debacle has demonstrated is that Americans largely do not want an objective systematic testing approach to academics.

  3. Another factor also, may be seemingly ever-growing dormitory building programs throughout second and third tier colleges, leading to pressures to relax standards at the lower end, and then to keep them low (or lower) so as to keep students in school. Dormitories are cash cows to college and university presidents and administrators. Keeping them filled, along with higher graduation rates in those colleges, leads to more cash today, and more alums (and potentially more giving) in the future.

  4. There is something that can be done, and something that I have seen before. Grad school admissions officers and fellowship boards should rely on class rank–not raw GPA.

    To be sure there is some unfairness. The humanities major will, all things being equal in terms of effort and talent, be ranked higher than the astrophysics major. But the astrophysics major and the humanities major will not always be competing for the same spots, unlike say, competing humanities majors from Harvard and Princeton.

    Make GPA irrelevant. Make class rank what matters. Then it does not matter if the entire class has better than a 3.3. there will still be a way to differentiate., despite the compression at the top end of the curve.

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