Who Needs an A, Anyway? A Lot of Folks on Campus Do

Chronicle photograph by Lawrence Biemiller

Grade inflation doesn’t just affect GPAs: As Princeton’s report on its grading policy notes, coaches, admissions directors, and competing institutions all have a stake in the matter.
August 08, 2014

Back in 2004, Princeton University took a stand against grade inflation with a policy recommending that academic departments’ classes award grades in the A range no more than 35 percent of the time. The policy was intended to standardize grading across departments and give students a better sense of the distinction between "their ordinarily good work and their very best work."

Now we’ve gotten a glimpse of how it all worked. A faculty committee assembled to review the policy has issued a widely discussed report describing the ways the anti-inflation plan has played out—and recommending some big changes.

Among the committee’s findings: Around the time that the faculty was discussing grade inflation, the distribution of grades changed, as the graph below illustrates. Not surprisingly, the fraction of A-range grades dropped, and the fraction of B-range grades grew. Most grades at Princeton, though, continued to be A’s and B’s.

Image taken from Princeton University's "Report From the Ad Hoc Committee to Review Policies Regarding Assessment and Grading"

So, mission accomplished: The university stopped awarding so many A’s. But now the Princeton committee advocates removing the 35-percent target. Why? In part because the committee found that the grading policy also had a number of unintended consequences.

When an institution decides to take on grade inflation, who exactly is affected? Let’s have a look at what the Princeton professors found.

The Losers

The admissions office: To the outside observer, Princeton doesn’t seem to have much trouble in this department. We’re talking about a place that admitted just 7 percent of its applicants and saw close to 70 percent of those it admitted decide to enroll. Even so, the grading policy is apparently a concern among prospective students and their parents, putting the university at a competitive disadvantage.

What the report says: "Janet Rapelye, dean of admission, reports that the grading policy is the most discussed topic at Princeton Preview and explains that prospective students and their parents see the numerical targets as inflexible."

The athletics department: Prospective students’ fears are of particular concern for the coaching staff.

What the report says: "Coaches find the perception of the grading policy a significant obstacle to recruitment, making it more difficult for them to attract the best student-athletes."

Engineering majors: While the policy was intended to standardize grading across departments, there’s a wrinkle. Some departments have more large introductory classes than others. If those departments give out grades lower than A in introductory classes, they have more of a cushion to award A’s to their own majors in upper-division classes.

That phenomenon may be a double whammy for engineering majors, the report explains. Those students are likely to find themselves in large introductory physics and mathematics classes, exactly the type of courses in which many non-A grades will be handed out. Their own department, meanwhile, doesn’t offer the big intro classes that pull in lots of nonmajors. That means fewer A’s to go around in their engineering classes.

What the report says: "Our view is grades within departments need to be meaningful in providing accurate feedback to students but that this does not require identical grade distributions across departments."

Students’ sanity: The committee found that the grading policy adds to student anxiety, "in perception at least." Student responses to a survey also suggest that the policy makes the classroom environment more competitive and less collaborative.

What the report says: "One of the negative side effects of the grading policy has been its contribution—in perception at least—to the anxiety about grades and indeed about themselves that many students experience while at Princeton."

Members of the Reserve Officers Training Corps: New military officers commissioned through this program receive their first assignments based in large part on their college grades. Those first assignments set the stage for their military careers. For them, the difference between A’s and B’s could be pivotal.

What the report says: "While it would be unreasonable for Princeton to change its grading policy as a result of a choice made by only a small number of students in each graduating class, ROTC comprises a special group of students whose issues deserve to be taken seriously."

Faculty members: While the Princeton committee’s report did not delve into the issue, a recent journal article—this one evaluating Wellesley College’s somewhat different policy to curb grade inflation—said that students evaluated their professors in affected departments less favorably after the change was made.

What the Wellesley study found: "It is the case at Wellesley that students in courses with higher average grades also tend to have higher evaluations of the quality of their professors’ instruction, but this correlation cannot be taken as evidence that higher grades yield higher evaluations."

The Unaffected

Graduate- and professional-school applicants: Aspiring Ph.D.’s and medical doctors may see the grading policy as a detriment to their chances at graduate-school admission. However, the committee found, "it is not evident that Princeton’s grading policy has any effect."

What the report says: "While departments sometimes make first cuts in their applicant pool based on such factors as GPA, we have no reason to believe that Princeton students are failing to gain admission to Ph.D. programs."

(Most) job applicants: Some employers ask job applicants for their GPAs—and not full transcripts. Some even have strict GPA cutoffs. For the rest, the Princeton name may carry the day.

What the report says: "While it is possible that a few different Princetonians would get jobs at, say, Goldman Sachs if grades were higher, the committee heard evidence that the actual number of Princetonians in such jobs would be the same." Further, looking beyond the very top of the class, "Princetonians appear not to have unusual difficulty convincing potential employers to hire them for jobs at companies that are a notch below the most elite."

The Big Winner

Other colleges: If Princeton—along with its allies in the war on grade inflation, Wellesley and Boston University—has been harmed at all, it has been only by making other colleges, like those in Cambridge and New Haven, more competitive.

What the report says: "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."