Sunday, September 13, 2009

Inflation Part 2 - Inflation at the Top

In my last post, I only described grade inflation at Dartmouth, but the problem is just as bad amongst the other Ivies. Nearly half of all Harvard students receive A’s in their courses, and approximately 80% have honors conferred upon them at graduation (see: Ivy League Grade Inflation). At UPenn 51% of grades are in the A range; at Columbia 22.3% are A’s (not including A-'s); at Cornell A range grades make up 41% of awarded grades. At Princeton, which has instituted grade deflation programs, by limiting the number of A range grades that could be awarded, 42.9% of grades are still in the A range. More statistics can be found at

These statistics reveal an unfortunate trend at some of America's top institutions. The very institutions who have world-class brands and don't need to inflate grades still do. A range grades constitute nearly half of all grades awarded, even at Princeton which has attempted to institute a deflationary policy (unfortunately, with little success).

Many Princeton students who are against grade deflation cite that their quota system results in extreme competition between students, as there are a limited number of As to go around and that this competition may be to the detriment of learning. I feel there are three strong responses to this point. Firstly, those who truly care about learning will still learn. Secondly, a B does not destroy their career opportunities because it is widely known that Princeton is attempting to institute this policy. Thirdly, while learning is certainly important for education, I do believe that competition is a necessary part of college and in fact life. Indeed, it is very rare when one is judged on absolute scales; more common is the judging of one relative to ones peers. Quota systems such the one at Princeton, if done effectively, normalize grading. An “A” means you are much better than your peers and a B or B+ says you are average.

While I commend Princeton on taking the first step amongst the Ivies, I do wish it had taken a much stronger stance. For example, officially only 35% of students are supposed to get in the A range, but, in fact, about 43% do, thereby showing that the policy is not strictly enforced. And 35% of students being classified as "excellent" or "outstanding" still seems a little high.

In finance, printing money causes inflation. In academics, printing A’s causes inflation. Let our academic institutions not go the way of Zimbabwe.

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