Wednesday, September 23, 2009

How Wide is the Grading Gap?


While most people concede there is a grading gap between the sciences and the humanities, few are aware of big it is. In order to determine precisely how wide the gap in grading is between various areas of study, I analyzed the grades at my alma mater. Dartmouth is one of the few colleges that publically makes grading information available on the web. And there are fewer still colleges that publish course level data, such as Dartmouth and Cornell do.

In particular, in an attempt to combat grade inflation, Dartmouth started placing median grades next to the student’s grade on his or her transcript for each course with an enrollment of 10 students or above. Additionally, Dartmouth College publishes a list of all courses that fit this enrollment criterion along with their median grades on its registrar’s website.


In order to analyze the grading gap between different broad disciplines, I obtained the median grades of all available courses on the website, totaling to 3166 courses taken across the last two years. I then placed each course into one of four categories:
1. Arts
2. Humanities
3. Soft or Social Sciences
4. Hard Sciences.

After classification of each course, I calculated the mean of all the median grades in each discipline. You can view the results here.

In looking at the data, there are some useful things to know. At Dartmouth, an “A” is a 4.0, A- is 3.66, B+ is 3.33 and so on. Furthermore, the median student at the time of graduation has approximately a 3.3 GPA. The cut-off cumulative GPAs to be in the top 5%, 10% and 15% of students at the time of graduation are 3.89, 3.77, and 3.59, respectively.


In light of these reference points, the results are quite shocking. A science student who achieved the median grade in each of his or her courses would have a GPA in the middle of his or her graduating class, whereas a humanities student achieving the same feat in his or her courses will receive honors for being in the top 10% or 15% of all graduating students.

There is a 0.43 GPA gap between arts and hard sciences students and a 0.23 GPA gap between humanities and hard sciences students, which is needless to say, significant. A difference in 0.23 grade points, ceteris paribus, makes the difference between getting into a top professional school or not, between getting a prized job or not, between being awarded honors at graduation, or not.


  1. Except we aren't applying for the same jobs, so I don't think we have to worry too much about a higher-graded arts student swiping our programming jobs. Otherwise, yeah, that's pretty crazy.

  2. True that an English Major is not applying for an SDE position at Microsoft, so is not competing agianst the CS major. But you're only considering a small subset of specialist jobs. If you consider more business-oriented jobs (i.e. the product manager position at Microsoft, consulting positions or banking) the major does not matter nearly as much, resulting in students competing for the same jobs.