By Russell Nieli
Grade inflation is one of those realities of the post-60s academic world that most college teachers bemoan but feel powerless to do anything about. It is virtually impossible for any single faculty member to do much to stem the tide of ever rising grade distributions. If a faculty member refuses to go along with the upward shift in grades and gives his students lower grades than they would have received for comparable work in other courses, students will rightfully complain that to those reading their official transcript it will falsely appear as if they have done lesser work or achieved at a lower level in the hold-out grader's course than in other courses. Such faculty members will find many fewer students taking their courses -- including many conscientious and competitive students whom the teacher does not want to scare away. Worse still, since tenure and promotion decisions are often partially based on student evaluations and student enrollments that frequently reflect past satisfaction with a professor's grading policy, university teachers today pay a heavy price for bucking the inflationary trend.
Perhaps the best that a lone academic can do is represented by Harvard government professor Harvey Mansfield. Mansfield can remember a time when the average GPA at Harvard College was around 2.5 on a 4.0 scale -- today it is about 3.5. The transition from C+ to B+ as the average grade has produced the ludicrous result that in some years nine in ten Harvard seniors graduated with official honors. For Mansfield the idea that grades should mean what grading keys still often say they mean -- i.e., that an A means "Excellent," "Truly Outstanding," a B "Very Good," "Above Average," and a C "Average" -- carries a good deal of weight. But implementing such a grading policy is impossible in a grading environment in which C grades have practically disappeared from most humanities and social science courses (representing less than 5 percent of the grades in some departments), and more than half of students in many Harvard courses receive A range grades. Mansfield came up with a creative solution that enabled him to avoid what would have been a bitter and ultimately futile struggle against the inflationary flood waters of the times without having to sing praises to the river gods. Mansfield has for many years now given his students two sets of grades, one for the official Harvard transcript, the other representing what the students really deserve on a non-inflated grading scale.
Does It Really Exist?
Some deny that grade inflation exists. According to these people -- usually students or their parents -- students are simply getting smarter these days, especially at the most prestigious colleges and universities which draw from a huge talent pool. The higher grades obtained at such places reflect genuinely higher achievement, these people say, just as the superior performance in track and field events at the Olympics represent genuine advances over earlier competitors, not changes in the evaluation metric.
But no college teacher with hands-on experience of the rising grades at the better colleges over the past several decades can take such claims seriously. Term papers of a quality that would have received a B or B+ in former times are now routinely given an A-, and with the near elimination of C range grades in many humanities and social science courses (except for failing or near-failing work), the B and B- grades have come to absorb everything that previously would have been awarded a C or even a D. To anyone with knowledge of an earlier period, it is clear that there has been both protracted grade inflation (higher grades overall for work no better than in an earlier period), and grade compression (almost all grades compressed into the A+ to B- range).
While it may be true that today there are somewhat larger numbers of truly stellar students at the high end of the most selective colleges, at the same time two important factors have added very mediocre students to the mid-range and lower end of these same institutions. First, there are racial preference policies in place at all such schools for "under-represented minorities," which make it much easier for black and Latino students to get admitted to them than whites and Asians, a situation which didn't exist prior to the very late 1960s. An even greater factor in watering down the academic talent has been the proliferation of college sports teams, with the number of women's teams matching those of the men, and a general tendency toward ever greater competitiveness and professionalization among all of the teams -- a situation which produces much more intense recruitment of many academically substandard high school athletes. Colleges now reach down academically as much for recruits on women's sports teams and teams that are usually described as "minor sports" as they once did only for highly recruited male basketball and football players. (This whole sad story is excellently recorded in James Schulman and William Bowen's, The Game of Life). The result is that at many of the most selective colleges, students with perfect 800s on their SATs and A+ high school averages sit side by side with substantial numbers of recruited athletes and affirmative action students with 550 SATs and B+ high school grades. This increase in mediocre students has almost certainly offset any increase in the number of the truly brilliant at the top end. Whatever its cause, rising grades do not represent an across-the-board increase in outstanding students.
Accelerating Grades: A Recent History
One can get a sense of the extent of the overall grade inflation from a look at changes over the years at Princeton. In the academic year ending in the spring of 1970, 17 percent of Princeton students earned A range grades. Five years later (1975) that figure had jumped to 30 percent. It would continue at this rate rising only slowly over the remainder of the 1970s and most of the 1980s -- it stood at 33 percent in the academic year ending in the spring of 1988 -- but would renew its upward trajectory in the 1990s and beyond, reaching 41 percent by 1995, and almost 48 percent in 2003. While there is some evidence that the rate of inflation has been greater at the Ivy League institutions than at the state colleges, Princeton's level of grade inflation has been in no way out of line with similar trends at the other Ivy's or at other elite private institutions such as Duke, Stanford, or Pomona.
Stuart Rojstaczer, a geology professor at Duke who has compiled extensive statistics on grade inflation (see his website www.gradeinflation.com), reports that about half of all grades at Harvard, Columbia, Duke, and Pomona are now in the A range, while C range grades have practically been eliminated. In a 2003 op-ed piece in The Washington Post, Rojstaczer reported that two years had passed since the last time he handed out a C in one of his Duke undergraduate courses explaining that "the C, once commonly accepted, is now the equivalent of the mark of Cain on a college transcript." This is in marked contrast to the past at Duke, where as late as 1969, Rojstaczer reports, "C was a respectable thing, given more than one-quarter of the time." [The present writer can confirm Rojstaczer's general numbers here, having been a Duke student in the late 1960s and having taken at least two undergraduate courses where the majority of grades were Cs -- in one of them, a freshmen English course, there were no As given at all.]
Just why grades have been so inflated is a subject of dispute. Many attribute at least the first wave of grade inflation to the Vietnam War and the desire of professors to insure that their students didn't do poorly and jeopardize their draft deferment status. But this explanation suffers from three fatal facts. First, draft boards were only interested in whether young men were enrolled as full time college students and passing their courses. They did not care about their GPAs or how many As they got as long as they weren't flunking out.
The Faulty Vietnam Explanation
The second problem with the "draft fear" explanation is that some of the greatest grade inflation occurred as the Vietnam War was winding down and after President Nixon instituted the all-volunteer army -- and, the inflationary trend, of course, has continued to the present day. Surely more long-term factors must be operative here than 60s era "draft fear". Finally, the "draft fear" explanation cannot explain why a very similar pattern of grade inflation has occurred over the decades in Canadian universities which were spared the tumult of the Vietnam protest era and student fears that they might be drafted and sent overseas to fight and die. A recent study published by the University of Toronto on grade inflation in Canada concludes: "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."
However wrong-headed the "draft fear" explanation may be, the search for an explanation in the Vietnam era offers an important clue to certain general changes in American -- as well as Canadian -- society and culture that suggest a more plausible explanation of the forces behind rising grades. For it was during this period -- the late 60s and early 70s -- when the universities lost their nerve as traditional sources of authority and lost the confidence that they once had as the major vehicles for passing on a valuable intellectual and cultural heritage to future generations. With this loss of self-confidence in a higher educating and civilizing mission, and the loss of whatever elements of the medieval-hierarchic structure of university life that still survived in the industrial age, universities became increasingly molded by the same kind of populist-consumerist ethos that shaped America's burgeoning shopping malls and populist mega-churches. The student consumer was now king, and the demand to eliminate low grades -- like the demand to eliminate burdensome course requirements -- proved irresistible to institutions that had lost confidence in themselves and sought above all to please their paying customers. And once some institutions and some professors started inflating their grades, the pressure was often irresistible for other institutions and other professors to follow suit and keep up with the grade-inflating competition. A "race to the inflationary top" ensued, a process which has by no means reached its limit. According to Professor Rostaczer's projections, if current trends continue -- and there is every reason to believe they will -- by mid-century the B grade will have gone the way of the C as almost all students will be receiving grades in the A range. Some have suggested that new scales will have to emerge like those in grading minor league baseball teams and investment bonds, with AA, AAA, etc. being the newer additions -- but this is by no means certain.
A Solution At Princeton?
Successful efforts to combat grade inflation have been rare and there is reason to believe that Rostaczer is correct and that the structural forces allied against such efforts are so powerful that grade inflation will be with us for many years to come. But there is at least one outlier to this story and it centers around an unusually tenacious and determined academic dean at Princeton, Dean of the College, Nancy Weiss Malkiel. Academic administrators and college deans are not usually known for their courage, tenacity, determination, or vision, and those at Princeton and other Ivy League colleges are no exception. As Max Weber long ago showed us, bureaucrats act like bureaucrats regardless of the institutions they serve. But Nancy Weiss Malkiel is clearly the exception as for several years now, despite enormous obstacles, she has been the driving force behind Princeton's successful efforts not only to slow but to reverse the trend toward inflated grades. It has been a thankless job but one Malkiel has pursued with the determination of genuine conviction and the firm belief that grade inflation has produced many serious and harmful consequences for academic life at Princeton and elsewhere.
"When students get the same grade for outstanding work that they get for good work," she explained to a New York Times reporter, "they are not motivated to do their best." There has been a "Lake Wobegon" pattern in grading, Malkiel says, where every student is above average. "This is part of inflationary patterns of evaluation in the larger culture." A faculty-staff committee she sponsored confirmed such a pattern in Princeton grading in the introduction to a report it filed in 2003: "Who could ever have imagined that we would reach a point [at Princeton] where a student with a straight B average [that is, a 3.0] would rank 923 out of a graduating class of 1079 -- or where a student with a straight C average [2.0] would rank 1078?"
Malkiel began her task of fighting grade inflation by first compiling and disseminating to the faculty extensive statistics on the extent to which grades had risen at Princeton since the 1970s. The statistics were striking in what they revealed and it was hoped that by making the degree of grade inflation publically known and exhorting the faculty to lower their grading patterns, progress could be made. Alas, nothing positive came of this strategy, which began in 1998 -- grading patterns in the years immediately following this date were no different than they had been in the previous years. This inform-and-mildly-exhort policy failed because many department heads feared that if their individual departments began to grade more strictly others might not necessarily follow and they would have to explain to angry students why they were getting lower grades than elsewhere. What was needed, it was clear, was a well-defined university-wide policy that had the strong backing of the entire faculty and university administration and was accompanied by at least some degree of institutional oversight and pressure to see to it that the different departments complied with the new policy guidelines.
The breakthrough came in April of 2004 when the governing faculty senate approved by a 2-1 margin a proposal by Malkiel to set an "expectation" that A grades should not exceed 35 percent of all grades in undergraduate courses and 55 percent of grades in junior and senior independent work. The expectation was not that every course in every year would conform to the prescribed limit, but that most of the courses in each department over any given three year period would at least come close to these numerical guidelines. To lessen student concerns that the "grade deflation policy" (as students termed it) might hurt Princeton students in their competition with students of other institutions for coveted positions after graduation, the university embarked upon an ambitious publicity program, sending out letters to over 3,000 graduate schools, professional schools, and corporate recruiters explaining Princeton's more rigorous grading policy. Every transcript sent out from the registrar's office is also accompanied by an explanation of the new grading policy, and students can download from Princeton's website copies of the new policy to send along in their applications for summer internships or other programs.
In a least two measurable ways the policy has been a considerable success -- perhaps the only success of its kind among major private universities in the U.S. In the three year period before the new grading policy was instituted (2001-2004), 47 percent of the grades at Princeton were in the A range. In the three year period since the implementation of the new policy (2005-2008), 40.4 percent of grades were A range. For this last academic year (ending in the spring of 2009), A range grades fell to 39.7 percent of all grades, the first time grades in this range had comprised less than 40 percent of Princeton's grades since the early 1990s. The new grading policy was clearly successful in reigning in grade inflation, at least at the high end.
The fewer As and correspondingly lower GPAs, however, haven't seemed to hurt the prospects of Princeton graduates after college. Princeton's Office of Career Services has compiled extensive data on recent graduates which for the most part show no fall-off in the ability of Princeton students to find jobs or get into various professional or graduate programs after college. For instance, in 2004, the last year before the implementation of the new grading policy, Princeton students received 312 offers of admission to Top 10 law schools. In 2008, three years into the new policy, they received 323 offers, an actual increase of 3 percent. Of pre-med majors applying to medical school, 115 Princetonians graduating in 2004 gained admission to medical school -- a success rate of 92.0 percent. Among the pre-med grads in 2008, a near-identical 114 gained a medical school acceptance, reflecting a near-identical success rate of 91.2 percent.
The picture with jobs after graduation was similar. While the number of graduating seniors with a full-time job in hand in the July following their graduation would decline in 2008 and 2009 due to the recession, both the number and percentage of graduating seniors with July jobs would rise in each of the three post-grade-inflation years, 2005, 2006, and 2007.
The anti-grade-inflation policy seemed to be working and not harming Princeton graduates in the employment and professional school arenas. Student criticism, however, has persisted. Some have protested that the 35 percent "expectation" for A's in a course is often taken by professors as a fixed quota, which, they say, encourages students to hope other students in their classes will do poorly so that they can be the one's receiving the limited number of high grades. In a recent letter to the Princeton administration signed by the leaders of the student government, students complained that if they are "thrown into a competition with their classmates for the handful of A's that professors are able to give, they will try to stay ahead of their fellow students rather than learning from them and sharing ideas with them in a collective pursuit of knowledge. No good can come of making grading a zero-sum game in which students hesitate to clarify a concept for a fellow student because it might cost them a good grade."
The students here clearly have a point, but Dean Malkiel and the Princeton administration respond to such criticism by saying that the 35 percent figure for A's is only intended as a flexible guide, not as a rigid quota, and that in classes with an overabundance of high-achieving students the 35 percent figure will be exceeded, just as in classes with a dearth of outstanding students much fewer than 35 percent of the students will get A's. The 35 percent guideline should only be understood, the administration explains, as a multi-year constraint over all the courses in a department, not as a constraint on each and every individual class in each and every given year. When the performance level of students in a class rises, more A's can be given, when it declines, fewer A's will be given.
The administration's response takes away some of the force of the students' complaint, but it must be admitted that almost any traditional grading system that does not give all students the same grade can lead to the malicious kind of competition that the students fear. (This may be a good argument in favor of evaluations by national exams -- like the AP exams at the high school level -- a proposal recently made by Charles Murray. A classmate's high score on a nationwide exam hardly jeopardizes my chances of scoring high on that exam, whereas that same classmate's high achievement in a course where the professor is under pressure to keep down the number of A's might well reduce my chances of getting one of those A's).
No solution is perfect, of course, but it is hard to argue that the Malkiel reforms have not been on balance a positive force in Princeton's academic life. According to a 2006 survey, 94.5 percent of the faculty who voted for the new grading policy said they would vote for it again (only 82 percent of the minority who voted against it said they would vote that way again, suggesting a non-trivial erosion in the opposition). Many problems with grade inflation remain, of course, especially those of grade compression, which the limit on A's has made even more acute. As it stands now, a B+ grade at Princeton in most courses is a very solid grade, indicating substantial work and mastery of the course material. Even in other schools with more inflated grades, the B+ grade often signifies decent work. But with the continued elimination of the C grade in many courses in Princeton and elsewhere except as a replacement for near-failing work, the gap between the quality of work represented by the B+ and B- grade is often enormous. The Malkiel reforms do not address this grade compression problem at the mid and lower levels -- which, for the time being at least, is perhaps just as well. Tackling big problems one at a time is often a wise strategy especially if powerful forces are in place resisting their solutions.
Can the Malkiel reforms be duplicated elsewhere? The answer is "yes," but a highly qualified "yes." For the immediate future, such reforms are probably possible only at the most prestigious institutions which can count on receiving an overabundance of qualified applicants even in the face of a reformed grading policy that may scare some students away. The prestige institutions also have the financial resources to make their stricter grading policies known to employers and grad schools, and like Princeton, can usually assure their graduates success in their after-college life. Faculties at the elite colleges can also be counted on to give at least passive support to initiatives for grading reform.
What is needed most -- but is probably in shortest supply -- is strong leadership from the top. The kind of successful grading reform that has taken place at Princeton is probably only possible if a university president, provost, or senior academic dean takes the initiative and shows an extraordinary level of resolve. Such is not the stuff of which most academic administrators are made, even at the elite institutions. But the path will at least be more easily traversed now that Princeton has shown the way. If one or more of the other Ivy's begins to fall in line, something like a bandwagon effect could take place that will encourage others to follow suit. I wouldn't bet the farm on it happening, but we can always hope.
Russell Nieli, a graduate of Duke University (B.A. 1970, summa cum laude) and Princeton (Ph.D. 1979), works for the Executive Precept Program sponsored by Princeton's James Madison Program, and has been for many years a Lecturer in Princeton's Politics Department. He has recently completed a collection of essays dealing with affirmative action policy and the origins of an urban black underclass.