Four years after the elimination of grade deflation as a university-wide policy, students have seen GPAs rise — if only by a few percentage points.
The University-wide GPA in 100–400 level courses across all departments and programs increased .026 points over the past year, from 3.435 to 3.461, according to a report by the Faculty Committee on Examinations and Standing.
The committee, led by Dean of the College Jill Dolan, comprised faculty members from each of the four academic divisions: humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, and engineering. As part of the University’s revised grading policy approved in 2014, the committee reviews grading data yearly and reports that data each fall.
The 2014 revised policy removed the grade deflation system and allowed departments to determine their own grading practices. However, because departments can determine their own grading policies, aspects of grade deflation may still exist.
“Grading and assessment are among the most complex but important actions the faculty undertake,” Dolan wrote in an email to the The Daily Princetonian. “Students deserve to be given a clear sense of their work in a class and over the course of their educational careers at Princeton. Being clear and transparent about standards for assessment works in the best interests of both faculty and students.”
Undergraduate Student Government president Rachel Yee ’19 was pleased with the results of the report, saying that a rise in student GPAs allows undergraduate students to be more competitive candidates for graduate school.
“I think that looking at our peer institutions, this is still on the low end,” Yee said. “In a competitive grad school market or job market, when recruiters are just looking at GPA for no more than a couple of seconds and don’t have a background in Princeton’s grading policy, that puts our students at a disadvantage.”
The report did mention one possible complication from the rise in GPA: “grade compression.” Dolan explained that an increase in higher GPAs can make the process of awarding honors more difficult.
“When the university GPA rises, more students are clustered together at the top of the class,” wrote Dolan. “Differentiating between the best students in quantitative terms [then] becomes harder.”
The portion of the report that compared average GPA for each of the four divisions stuck out to the students that the ‘Prince’ interviewed. The report found that humanities courses had the highest overall GPA, followed by social sciences, engineering, and then natural sciences.
Students across divisions expressed little surprise at the ranking. Some believed that the more quantitative nature of classes in engineering and the natural sciences leads to the lower GPAs.
“In the natural sciences, there is a right answer,” said Anthony D’Arienzo ’21, a prospective physics major. “You’ve either calculated the integral right or you didn’t.”
However, D’Arienzo also added that not all natural science coursework is black and white. For example, the success of a mathematics paper, similar to a social science or humanities paper, depends on the proof and the strength of its argument.
Delaney McMahon ’21, a prospective English major, said that the content of humanities classes can make grading expectations vague.
“In a pool of ideas, it’s very hard to quantitatively value them,” said McMahon of her English classes. “The fact that I am not kept to a clear standard makes me raise my own standard. [The professors and preceptors] have this expectation that they’re supposed to hear something intelligent and thought-provoking, and that pushes me.”
Conversely, David Zamora ’21, a concentrator in mechanical and aerospace engineering, said that the content of the engineering courses contributes to the lower overall GPA, since such courses require a particular way of thinking and problem solving. He expressed some surprise that the overall GPA for engineering classes was higher than that for natural sciences.
“The material itself can be hard to grasp because we’re deviating from how we would naturally see things or do things,” Zamora said. “In an introductory physics or chemistry or math class things are [often] idealized … in engineering classes, that’s off the table. We’re dealing with actual systems with real inefficiencies.”
As a pre-med psychology major, Amanda Haye ’19 has experienced both natural and social sciences. Haye explained that especially in the natural sciences, classes known to “weed out” students may leave the students in the class with resultingly lower grades.
The “weeding out” refers to large preliminary lecture courses, usually in engineering or natural sciences, that depend heavily on examinations. Unlike those entry-level courses, social science entry-courses tend to be smaller and more discussion-based, resulting in higher grades within those classes.
Concentrations with “weeding out” classes in the department tend to have lower GPAs on average.
“If we could somehow find a way for natural science classes to be more collaborative and expose the talents of each student more than just testing ability, I think that would make more satisfactory grading,” Haye said. “There’s a bit of a climate change when I walk into a pre-med class versus a psych class.”
D’Arienzo concurred that some early-on “weeding out” classes contribute to lower overall GPAs, but also acknowledged that once a student in the natural sciences had finished those classes, there was opportunity for one’s grades to recover.
“The weed out classes are definitely my lowest GPA,” said D’Arienzo. “Part of that is getting adjusted to Princeton, and part of that is getting used to the expectations of the program … but you stay in the department, you figure things out, and your GPA goes up.”
Students across divisions also acknowledged that preconceived notions about the difficulty of a division could be wrong, since the work done in each division requires different skill sets and experiences.
“Behind the joke, sometimes there’s an actual belief that AB majors have it easy or sleep all day, but it’s naive.” Zamora said. “They’re different departments, different fields, and there’s something for everybody.”
Ultimately, Yee praised the administration for sharing the grading data with the student body.
“I want to commend Dean Dolan and her department for sharing this with all of us,” Yee said. “I think this provides some insight and I think this increased transparency is definitely a step in the right direction.”