Grade Inflation 1, Princeton 0

The big academic news this week is that Princeton seems to be abandoning its war against grade inflation.  It really wasn’t a war against inflation, because grades actually stabilized at a high level a while ago.  The effort was to stop giving most students A’s.  Princeton had barely achieved its goal, with 43% of students “earning” A’s or A-minuses in 2013.  As the author of a Washington Post article sagely remarks, “Princeton students may have had the best of both worlds: a reputation for tough grading, but a grade distribution that was relatively lenient.”  Nevertheless, Princeton has apparently decided to surrender that reputation and allow most grades to again become A’s, as is the case in most of the Ivies and the comparable elite liberal arts schools.

The reasons Princeton actually gave have to do  with “undergraduate stress” and recruiting.  If top grades are actually a scarce resource (because professors are pressured to give only a fixed percentage of them), then students will become less collaborative and more dog-eat-dog competitive.  It’s unclear, of course, why that stress would be hard on these students, given, especially, that the fact they’re at Princeton means that they flourished under such pressure in high school and will so again in the world of work.   It’s also unclear how stressful the new environment could have possibly been, given the lack of evidence that a slightly lower GPA makes a lot of difference in getting the best jobs or into the best grad school.

So the real issue is recruiting. Even or especially the Ivies have been dragged into higher-ed’s “consumer culture,” where students expect all kinds of amenities for their big money.  Part of the culture of “entitlement” is the expectation of top grades that make one’s degree as valuable as possible.  If grades are mainly a recruitment device, then Princeton can’t afford to do less than its competitors.  In the struggle for the scarce resource of the best and the brightest students, Princeton isn’t about to threaten inflated self-esteem and blind ambition with the prospect of B’s.

Now, less selective schools, for the most part, are stuck with following the lead of the Ivies.  Everyone assumes that, say, a B-plus at my Berry College couldn’t be comparable to an A at Harvard.  They assume, in fact, that an A at Berry doesn’t signify the same level of excellence as an A at Harvard.  So it’s natural the grade distribution of Berry drift in the direction of the Ivies, although, so far, we haven’t risen to their level of “excellence” in generating A students.  We want our students to be judge fairly in their competition with graduates from the elite schools for jobs and admission to graduate and professional schools.  That sometimes makes a reluctant decision to grade “generously” the very opposite of professorial self-indulgence.

From our less selective view, here’s the Ivy scam.  It’s assumed that the best students go to the Ivies, and they do have the best SAT scores and all that.  Why undermine that advantage by giving any of the students anything less than A’s?  That’s why Yale Law School no longer has grades at all.  It’s Yale, ‘nuff said, in each and every case.   So there’s no way we at Berry can prove that our guys are actually accomplishing more in college—making more academic progress—than those Ivy guys.  We can’t give them more than A’s, and we double up on their perceived inferiority by giving them less than A’s.

Related: Should You Avoid Ivy League Schools?

A student from Berry College competing for admission to graduate and professional school won’t succeed merely with high grades.  But failure is ensured by not-so-good grades.  Our students need the killer test scores more than the Ivy students, but they’re less likely to get them.  And so we professors have to knock ourselves out in the form of meticulously written letters of recommendation, which I, for one, make much more truthful and specific than I can make grades.  Our students are also quite dependent on resumes (which they’re good at) and writing samples.  Given all that, pardon me for not losing any sleep over my own (from a historical perspective) grade inflation.

Critics of higher education often write of the corrupt bargain that is grade inflation.  Faculty give students good grades they don’t deserve, and students return the favor by giving faculty good evaluations they don’t deserve.  There’s some truth to this here and there, although very little at my college and some other small colleges I know a lot about.  For one thing, the correlation between high evaluations and easy grading is pretty weak.  Students respond enthusiastically to fair grading, and they rebel against arbitrary and whimsical grading.  Now it’s true that students often don’t regard as fair those faculty whose grade distribution is far below that characteristically found at their college.  It’s hard to say that they’re simply wrong.  And, human nature being what it is, they are far less inclined to regard as unfair faculty whose grade distribution is far more indulgent than that of most professors.

Related: Why Grade Inflation Hurts Social Mobility

For another thing, faculty generally really want to be fair graders.  But they typically get little guidance from anyone on what grades should mean.  Not only that, everyone everywhere agrees that the evaluation of teaching should be about a lot more than students evaluations, but faculty typically have little confidence in the other methods employed.  They want to be recognized and criticized as teachers, and they long for a world where astute judgments of quality aren’t trumped by the “quantitative assessment” that is the evaluation scores and counting the number of published articles.  But all they get, with every passing day, is more baloney about reductionist assessment of skills and competencies, the science of rubrics, and all that.  They can’t help but notice, of course, that said culture of assessment emanates mostly from schools of education, where assessment is allegedly more meticulous and actual grades higher than anywhere else.

It’s tenured faculty, after all, who are still able to be relatively indifferent to evaluations.  And they shouldn’t be afraid to tell students that they are.  When I teach what Socrates says about democracy in the Republic, I say that pure democracy is so relativistic or indifferent to truth and virtue that teachers fawn over students because students get to evaluate them as if they were their equals.  But, I add (ironically), that couldn’t happen in real life.  Of course, indifference to evaluation is always, in some measure, posing.  Everyone likes to be liked, and I’m usually puffed up and feel the bleepin’ love for about 20 minutes after reading my evaluations each semester.

The real reason good evaluations are important for faculty is, in fact, consumerism.  All but the most selective colleges are paranoid—for perfectly good financial reasons—about retention.  And so they don’t think they can afford to have unpopular professors, whatever the reason for the low ratings. In most cases “the quest for excellence” is balanced (or more than balanced) by the quest for full classes and satisfied paying customers.  I’m not blaming colleges for being stuck with this problem, and for not wanting to talk about it in full candor, even behind closed doors.  If even Princeton’s grading policy is determined by the imperatives of recruiting, consider the pain colleges feel when they’re worried about having enough students to stay open.

Now if administrators across the country were really worried about grade inflation, they would do everything they could to minimize the use of adjuncts and temporary faculty.  In principle, they can say they can’t keep those tenured radicals from being lazy teachers and graders.  They could, in principle, lay down the law to their insecure instructors about grade distribution and all that.  But they hardly ever do.  It turns out that the adjunct especially is pretty much a slave to student satisfaction and enrollment.  Bad evaluations are usually the end of line, with no appeal to some higher authority.

Related: Grade Inflation All the Way Up

There’s not space for me discuss why grade inflation is worse in the social sciences and humanities than in the STEM majors—and worst of all, often, in techno-lite majors, “studies” majors, and (as I said) schools of education.  I will repeat the obvious observation that there’s some correlation between the real market value of the major and tough grading.  Majors that can’t attract students with the prospect of employment are often inclined to offer good grades instead.  An unfortunate side effect is that professors teaching in those majors where people often (sometimes mistakenly) assume nobody learns much of anything have no way of tagging the promising students who have proven to be exceptions to that rule.

If our colleges and universities really wanted to reduce grade inflation in the service of making the degrees of genuinely excellent students worth more, then they would begin by disciplining the Ivies and other elite schools.  Then everyone else could afford to follow their lead.  Princeton, it turns out, can’t discipline itself over the long term.  But it’s one sign among many of the general worthlessness of the accreditation process that nobody really thinks that’s going to happen.

For now, I ask the various “external constituencies” not to be too hard on us professors.  We live in—we didn’t create—the world of generous grading in which we’re stuck with regarding B-plus as a quite mediocre grade in an upper-division course.  We didn’t think up student evaluations, and we didn’t create the highly competitive enrollment and retention environment.  We’re not the cause of “the bubble” that has driven up college tuitions to the point where students feel unreasonably entitled to all sorts of amenities for their money.

Peter Augustine Lawler

Peter Augustine Lawler

Peter Augustine Lawler is Dana Professor in the Department of Government and International Studies at Berry College.

4 thoughts on “Grade Inflation 1, Princeton 0

  1. Grade inflation is less of a problem in STEM because there are absolute right and wrong answers.
    “2+2=4” is right.
    “2+2=5 because I’m being oppressed by white males” is wrong most of the time.
    Does the bridge stay up when subjected to loads? There is a clear yes or no answer, and how you feel about the race-based, socio-environmental question of putting up a bridge in the first place is irrelevant.

    “Studies”-based ideology is making inroads into STEM, and is determining who gets into programs, but the underlying mathematics is not flexible for gender or race. At least not yet, anyway.

  2. It would actually work better if the instructor supplied not only the grade, but the rank in his or her particular class. As in: A, but third best A.

  3. Solution to grade inflation: Each class on the student’s transcript should not only include her grade, but the average grade of the class. The GPA should also display the average GPA of her major.

    All you have to do is reprogram the computer, not reprogram our academic culture.

    1. Absolutely sufficient! Minor point: Not the mean GPA in the major, but the mean GPA in the courses the student took. The problem would solve itself.

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