The effects of grade deflation on the academic culture at Princeton — specifically its directive that A's shall account for less than 35 percent of grades awarded — are decidedly negative. The psychological influence of this knowledge on students when in a precept or seminar can lead to increased competition and tensions among peers. Many take it into account when choosing courses, affecting their willingness to pursue challenging classes. These effects of Princeton’s grading policy stand in opposition to some of the critical elements of a liberal arts education: academic exploration, group discussion and collaboration.
We also suspect that the policy is hurting the prospects of Princetonians in both the job market and graduate school admissions. Though Dean of the College Nancy Malkiel has informed companies like McKinsey & Company and institutions like Harvard Medical School about the policy, students apply to a range of different businesses, nonprofits, fellowships and schools across the country and around the world that know almost nothing about the policy. Sending a letter explaining grade deflation is laudable, but it will never be enough. The simple fact that, to accurately appreciate the meaning of Princeton’s grades, an admissions official or employer must be convinced that a 3.6 GPA from Princeton reflects greater achievement than the same GPA from Harvard is a barrier that will be difficult, and in some cases virtually impossible, to overcome. This can disadvantage Princetonians, especially relative to peers coming from other highly selective institutions. Additionally, as GPAs at Princeton decline, more students will see their opportunities limited when they fall below specific GPA cutoffs for applications.
Even the best efforts of the administration to inform those outside of Princeton about grading policies cannot ensure that Princetonians will not be disadvantaged in these settings. The onus is on the administration to prove this is not the case. But the evidence that West College summons to suggest that this is not the case — even if it included more appropriate data that compared Princetonians to students from other highly selective institutions — cannot actually measure trends in a variety of disparate postgraduate opportunities that Princetonians pursue. These negative effects may not harm all students, but they demonstrate that cracks can, and likely will, persist.
The intention behind the policy — to ensure common, academically rigorous standards for grading across departments at Princeton — is a good one. But it does not justify the negative effects of this policy. Setting an arbitrary percentage of students that should produce rigorous work is not a method for defining rigorous work; it should not be the governing standard for what constitutes high-quality, A-level work. Instead, faculty should continue the discussions they have initiated within their departments since 2004 about defining appropriate standards, and department heads should talk with each other to achieve a level of uniformity in grading practices. Admittedly, there is no perfect solution: Eliminating the pressures from the 35 percent guideline would likely cause some inflation. This, however, is preferable to the inherent harms of the current system. Grade deflation is the wrong choice for Princeton.
Original URL: http://www.dailyprincetonian.com/2009/12/02/24601/