It’s tempting to speculate that the lingering artifacts of grade deflation are still at play on campus — when the orgo exam is curved down, when your professor boasts about a 50 percent average on the math midterm, when the “Harvard easy A” jokes are forever funny. The policy of grade deflation is the common enemy and the most reliable scapegoat.
As part of the generation that never faced the policy, I am confronted with the question of its legacy. What does the failed experiment show us about our campus culture? With or without deflation, Princeton students depend on grades as a measure of self-worth.
When I researched the policy, I expected evidence to affirm our fears: deflated grades diminished our prospects for jobs and graduate programs. But the administration’s report repealing deflation attributed the discontinuation to “psychological factors and campus atmosphere,” rather than effects on opportunities outside the Princeton bubble.
The policy’s life and death reveal students’ dependence on their GPAs for validation. Motivated by a goal to deliver “clear signals from their teachers about the difference between their ordinarily good work and their very best work,” the deflation policy instead heightened anxieties surrounding the letter grade, rather than what it represented. The policy forced a numerical antidote to a cultural problem. If changing the metric could not change our relationship with grades, what could?
After the discontinuation of the policy in 2014, the Nassau Weekly reported an underwhelming, rather than celebratory, campus atmosphere. In the article, half-sarcastic students mourn, “If we’re getting rid of grade deflation, we need a new excuse for poor grades.” The article comments that terminating the policy “ultimately reinforced the idea that students’ stress levels should reflect their GPAs,” and calls on students to “try and divorce our transcripts from our sense of self-worth.”
In 2017, Janelle Tam ’17 wrote a relatable reflection on the perpetual struggle of caring more about your GPA than the illustrious academic pursuit, yet feeling helpless to change. She encourages an “attitude change,” a conscious decision to focus “on intellectual exploration rather than getting As.”
But how much can students, as individuals, do to change the GPA-centric culture? In the administration’s report, the Undergraduate Student Government suggested that the policy placed an “emphasis on the letter grade rather than substantive instructor feedback.” The policy sought to provide “clear signals” to students regarding their performance. But, to cultivate more illuminating feedback, why not give us more feedback?
I am embarrassed to admit that this week, I called my mom crying after I got a politics paper back. I wasn’t really interested in the score, but I did take the commentary a little too personally, to say the least; never have I ever seen “no’s” aggressively annotating an essay. While I got the same letter grade on an English essay and decided to P/D/F the class, the plentiful, though unpleasant, feedback on my politics essay spurred an eagerness to redeem myself on the next assignment.
While grades are easy to dismiss and rationalize, descriptive feedback speaks to the University’s mission of motivating academic excellence — a push for the student’s absolute best work.
Grade deflation poorly embodied this mission, but the goal could be met by having professors and preceptors provide more guidelines and expectations for direct critique, perhaps through written comments for students accompanying midterm/final grades. In high school, we received copious and constant feedback. For better or for worse, Princeton is not high school. But, the impact of personal feedback on a student’s psyche can not be understated.
How should we distinguish good work from excellent work? Tell us. Rather than suggest a quota on grades, departments should encourage a framework of robust communication between students and professors/preceptors. The University would then return the ball to the students’ court by choosing to focus on qualitative feedback, rather than the often uninformative mark on the transcript.
It’s difficult not to internalize a score if a score is all you get. We students hold a responsibility to pursue excellence rather than validation – superior work, rather than an easy A. But the administration should play a role in curing our GPA obsession and improving mental health. With a culture defined by feedback and communication rather than definitive scores, we can refocus our academic pursuits.
Jessica Nyquist is a sophomore from Houston, Texas. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.