Starting around the mid-20th century, a pandemic of meaninglessly high grades swept the nation. Steadily, the Gentleman’s C was replaced by the Gentleman’s B-pluses. Soon even B-pluses’ grew ungentlemanly, with more and more grades compressed into the narrow band spanning from A-minus to A-plus. College administrators and educators saw this as a problem, but each school feared the blowback that would come from being the first to rein it in.
Then, brave Princeton, my beloved alma mater, announced that it would lead the charge. In 2004, it imposed nonbinding targets for the percentage of A’s that should be awarded in each department, because “students deserve clear signals from their teachers about the difference between their ordinarily good work and their very best work.”
Students, not surprisingly, were less keen on clarifying these noisy signals. They groused about the targets, saying they would foster cutthroat competitiveness, undermine student collaboration and hurt Tigers’ chances on the job market because their counterparts at other elite schools would still have inflated transcripts. At Yale, for example, 62 percent of undergraduate grades are A’s and A-minuses; Princeton aimed for 35 percent.
Princeton’s administration assured uneasy undergrads that other schools would follow. Alas, almost no others did. (Wellesley, which had among the worst grade inflation, implemented a slightly different experiment around the same time.) Now, 10 years later, Princeton appears ready to throw in the towel. In a 35-page report released last week, a committee recommended that the school abandon its efforts.
The committee actually found no evidence that the grade targets were hurting students’ job or grad school prospects (with one possible exception: ROTC, since grade-point averages factor into an officer’s first assignment), which may mean that Princeton’s grading standards are still not all that tough; in 2013, about 43 percent of grades were A’s or A-minuses, well above the target. That’s stingier than Yale and Harvard, but about in line with U.S. colleges overall. So for a few years Princeton students may have had the best of both worlds: a reputation for tough grading but a grade distribution that was actually relatively lenient.
Instead, the main arguments Princeton’s committee presented for ending “grade deflation” involved concerns about undergraduate stress and recruiting.
To fully understand why Princeton caved, though, you have to appreciate why high grades have been awarded at schools across the country in the first place.
Some have suggested that affirmative action and the Vietnam War were responsible; in those cases, the theory goes, professors went easy on students who either were less well-prepared for college or needed decent grades to avoid the draft. Neither explanation really lines up with the data.
Students likewise have argued that they’ve just gotten smarter over the years. While the top-ranked schools have indeed become more selective, this theory wouldn’t explain why middle-tier schools also inflated grades. (Two-year colleges and the least selective four-year publics do not seem to have inflated their grades much, if at all, which makes sense from a strategic perspective; lower-ranked schools need to clearly signal which students are true standouts to help them get jobs.)
And of course even if you believe modern students are uniformly smarter than their parents were, you still might argue that today’s grades are supposed to reflect the distribution of talent today, not yesterday.
In my view, the most convincing theory comes from Stuart Rojstaczer, a retired Duke geophysicist who has collected oodles of grading data. He blames the “emergence of a consumer-based culture in higher education.” As students are forced to pay more and more for a degree, they feel more entitled to high grades. They then pressure professors to weaken standards. Supporting this thesis is the fact that GPAs tend to be more inflated at private schools, where tuition is higher, even after controlling for selectivity.
Sites such as RateMyProfessors.com may also play a role, as easier grading tends to encourage better student feedback. Adjuncts in particular need favorable student evaluations to get rehired, making them especially susceptible to inflationary pressures.
Plus, academic departments have learned that lenient grading can attract more majors, and thereby earn them more faculty hiring slots. This competitive edge afforded by awarding more A’s extends to entire schools, too: “The committee was surprised to learn that students at other schools (e.g., Harvard, Stanford, and Yale) use our grading policy to recruit against us,” Princeton’s report says.
In other words, A’s have become a more valuable currency in higher ed, even as, paradoxically, their value on a transcript has been inflated away.
Catherine Rampell is a columnist for The Washington Post.