Yale mulls grade deflation, looks at Princeton
Yale has created an ad hoc committee to examine its grading policies, and while it is unlikely the committee will recommend a formal grade deflation policy, the committee is currently gathering data. This data gathering will include an analysis of Princeton’s policy, according to Yale economics professor and committee chair Ray Fair.
Sophomore and Yale College Council member Kyle Tramonte said the committee plans to release its findings in February. He noted the grade-point-average cutoff for summa cum laude status has been rising in recent years, suggesting the administration has noticed a trend of grade inflation.
University Dean of the Faculty David Dobkin said Princeton enacted its current grading policy to level grading across different departments.
“When we started the grading policy, there was a great disparity in the number of A’s given across different departments,” Dobkin said. “The goal of the grading policy was to make those numbers a little more balanced.”
Former dean of the college Nancy Malkiel, the architect and face of Princeton’s grading policy, declined to comment on other institutions’ policies.
Advocates for grade deflation at other Ivy League schools have pointed out similar problems with inequality across departments. An opinion piece by Penn senior Kyle Henson in The Daily Pennsylvanian last March pointed out that lower GPAs in science, technology, engineering and math deterred students initially interested in these fields.
“While Princeton’s system certainly has its problems, the concept of standardizing grades is vital in preventing students from feeling penalized for studying what they like,” Henson wrote.
Princeton’s grading policy sets the expectation that no more than 35 percent of students on average should earn an A in a course. Two-thirds of the faculty approved the policy, lobbied for by Malkiel, in an April 2004 vote. Current Dean of the College Valerie Smith has said that she has no immediate plans to overturn the policy.
Yale philosophy professor Shelly Kagan GS ’82, who claims to have a reputation for grading more harshly than many of his colleagues based on student evaluations and comments, said grade inflation is primarily a problem in the humanities and social sciences at Yale.
Brian Solomon, a columnist at The Dartmouth who has written numerous columns against grade inflation, similarly noted that grade inflation is not a problem in all departments.
“Within a single university, there’s a big disparity in the grades that are given in a department like biology versus the grades that are given out in a department like theater,” Solomon said in an interview.
In 2010, Dartmouth’s Committee on Organization and Policy investigated Dartmouth’s grading policy, among other things, and found the average GPA has gone up by .01 each year since 1974.
Solomon said that, as far as he knew, the committee did not publicize its findings or solicit any outside opinions and that he did not know of any changes to Dartmouth’s grading policies as a result of its work.
Dartmouth grades are on the rise. The median grade was an A-minus in more than half its classes last year. This is only publicly known because Dartmouth was the first Ivy League university to automatically show median grades for classes on a student’s transcript following a vote in 1994.
Cornell enacted a similar policy in 1996, posting median grades for courses online. In the spring of 2009, the university began to list class-wide median grades on academic transcripts for the Class of 2012 and beyond so that graduate schools and potential employers could calculate an applicant’s performance relative to other students in a class.
An opinion piece in the Cornell Daily Sun in September 2011 criticized this policy, claiming that median grades did not give students an incentive to take harder classes or provide a more comprehensive picture of student performance.
At Columbia, transcripts from Columbia College have published the percentage of A’s awarded in a class since 1996, while transcripts from the School of Engineering and Applied Science do not disclose this information. A document released in 2011 revealed that one in 12 Columbia undergraduates earned at least a 4.0 in the fall semester.
At Yale, grades are not as publicly available, according to Stuart Rojstaczer, a former Duke hydrology professor who has researched university grading trends. Kagan, the Yale philosophy professor, said public availability of average grades could help combat grade deflation at Yale.
Rojstaczer does not expect that Yale will introduce a formal process like Princeton’s in the next few years, but he said it is inevitable that universities will eventually try to rein in grade inflation.
Princeton’s grading policy has faced plenty of criticism and negative reviews by students, and moves toward the policy may not be received well by student bodies at other schools.
“Obviously from a student perspective, no student is complaining about grade inflation,” Tramonte, the Yale College Council member, said.
Kagan also said he expected initial resistance among the faculty if guidelines were given restricting the number of A’s because of faculty pride in their grading autonomy.
Rojstaczer credited Princeton with good implementation as an early adopter of grade deflation policies but said other schools’ efforts could benefit from better explanation of the policy on the public relations front.
“Students and parents are very whiny about what really is a modest policy in terms of restricting grade inflation, and perhaps there is a better way in terms of public relations with students and parents to assuage their fears,” Rojstaczer said.
Solomon, the Dartmouth columnist, said the debate ultimately comes down to what a university thinks the purpose of grades should be. If grades are meant to show students’ talents and allow them to go to the best graduate schools, then current grade inflation trends are not a problem. However, if grades are meant to educate students on where they truly excel and to offer differentiation among students, then grade inflation is actually hurting students.
“If you decide what grades are for, then that informs what you need to do, so it doesn’t actually exist in a vacuum of grade deflation,” Solomon said.
Tramonte said that, while the formation of the committee was not widely publicized, he thinks its February findings may cause a stir among students.