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More harm than good

As the Triangle Club song goes, "New Haven has its murders?, Philadelphia decays and in the town that’s home to Brown,? they smoke away the days. They kill themselves in Ithaca?; in Hanover it snows. There’s violent crime in NYC?; in Cambridge egos grow."

But in Princeton we have grade deflation. Although the lyrics of the Triangle song jest at each school’s respective stigmas, grade deflation is a real problem. Last year, when choosing which college to attend, by far one of the most agonizing choices I (and likely many students on campus) have ever had to make, Princeton’s grade deflation policy was a thorn in an otherwise easy choice. And I suspect I am hardly alone in this regard. The Class of 2017 Facebook page was filled with concerned posts about the effects of grade deflation, and the best pieces of advice upperclassmen could give were often something along the lines of, “You’re going to get B’s and C’s. Relax. Everyone does.” The problem with grade deflation isn’t that we will probably get some lower grades— at a school of Princeton’s caliber, that is to be expected. Rather, the issue is that B’s and C’s are expected and indeed are seen as inevitable.

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Now, however, University President Christopher Eisgruber’83 has tasked a committee to reevaluate Princeton’s grading policy, which has been in effect since 2004. It is indeed high time that the decade-old policy be updated.

First and foremost, the use of a numerical guideline for the allocation of grades, while well-intentioned, does more harm than good. It was designed by former Dean of the College Nancy Malkiel to curb the rising problem of grade inflation, but since then, the policy has been misapplied. While intended as a limit on A's given in the departmental unit as a whole, some professors apply the numerical limits to specific courses, which in turn harms the students. Especially in introductory classes, which often have hundreds of students, perhaps a third of them can get an A grade. This knowledge, and indeed this mentality, fosters negative academic competition. Knowing that I may or may not be one of the select few to walk out the door with one of the coveted A grades makes me less willing to aid, cooperate or otherwise work with people who may very well “nab” one of the few A’s as well.

It’s not as if classes aren’t already difficult enough at Princeton. It is evident when students produce A quality work or when they get over 90 percent on a test that they deserve a suitable grade to match their performance— which is not always the reality under grade deflation. There is a preexisting organic demarcation, a naturally existing boundary between A, B and C quality work in the form of the bell curve, because of the fact that some students do better than others and subsequently earn a higher grade. That being the case, grade deflation is simply unnecessary and just serves to induce further stress among the student body by acting like the proverbial sword hanging over our necks.

What’s more, professors, when building a course, design assignments and tests to accurately gauge student capability. The grades students earn are indications of their mastery of the course load and of their ability to apply what they have learned, so why does the Princeton administration need to step in and implement active grade deflation at the seemingly arbitrary 35 percent threshold? If 40 percent, or 45 percent or even 50 percent of students in a class manage to do well in a class, surpassing a professor’s expectations, they are rightfully entitled to that A grade.

And, of course, the grade deflation policy only hurts the prospects of Princetonian graduates as they leave school and enter the job market or apply to graduate school; our peer institutions have not followed suit in Princeton’s example of active grade deflation, and as such, our graduates are at a distinct disadvantage. For instance, although Yale has not released the statistics of its graduating class since the 1980s, Stuart Rojstaczer, a former Duke University professor and a noted grade inflation researcher, estimated that the average GPA at Yale in 2012 was equivalent to an A-, while the average GPA was equivalent to a B- just 50 years ago, according to an article published in The Yale Daily News. From a purely numerical standpoint, Yale students clearly seem to have the upper-hand upon completing their undergraduate studies.

Grade inflation can clearly be a problem, when too many students get too many high grades. But forcing competition and artificially suppressing grades is not the solution. In the end, at a school like Princeton, where instructors already design classes to test each student’s respective capabilities, grade deflation is an unnecessary policy that only serves to harm the student body. Let the professors be the judges of work quality, and above all, give A-level work an A grade.

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Jason Choe is a freshman from Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif. He can be reached at jasonjc@princeton.edu.

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