Grade Inflation

There’s a fascinating article at Inside Higher Ed today about grade inflation, in which all sorts of disturbing trends are bandied about: at Brown, for example, the majority of undergraduate grades were As. That’s just not right. Princeton gets a shoutout in the article (yay!) for its grade deflation policy, which has encouraged professors and departments to be conscious of using a wider portion of the grading scale, and suggests that departments should shoot for a long-term average of awarding As to 35% of students. But 35%? Even that’s not enough.

I’m a hard-liner about grading. I believe something that, in my experience, is rarely practiced in universities: I believe that As should be really fucking hard to come by. Granted, despite the highly inflated grades of my high school career, I’m not really getting As now—I’m more of an A-/B+ kind of gal. But that’s beside the point. We should not be living in a world where the majority of students at an Ivy League institution (Brown, I’m looking at you) are getting As. Not only is that not sending a very good educational message to students about how well they’re doing, it just furthers this stereotype about how elitist, how entitled, how privileged, Ivy-League students are. To bring this all back to myself in a totally privileged way, this is one reason why I’m embarrassed, sometimes, to tell people I go to Princeton. It conjures up images of these lazy entitled kids sitting around doing nothing and just profiting off their privilege.

And there’s maybe a little bit of substance to that stereotype in this case. Because you know who isn’t being affected by the grade inflation trend? Community colleges. The study that led to all the data about four-year universities also found that, if anything, community-college professors have become tougher graders in recent years—and interviews with community-college professors seem to suggest that their students prefer such a system. It’s a far cry from my anecdotal evidence at Princeton, where virtually every student I’ve talked to hates the grade deflation policy. It’s all about them, and how their As are not only their right, but a necessity for law school or business school or med school or the job market.

But I have no sympathy for this perspective. Sitting right now in a cafe on-campus, drinking my $1.50 cup of coffee and typing on my MacBook, I think that the very least I can do is try to work as hard as I can, to somehow be deserving of all this privilege bestowed upon me, and to become educated and intelligent enough that I can somehow give back to the system that’s giving me this. I’m an academic brat. I’ve grown up in this system and it’s my home, and I still want it to mean something. I would like to know that three-and-a-bit years from now, the piece of paper Princeton gives me actually has some significance, and isn’t just a receipt for $200,000.

On a related note, I was just talking online to a friend who’s studying nuclear engineering at another university. He was showing me a graph he’d produced for his schoolwork that I certainly didn’t understand, but I couldn’t help feeling a little guilty about my liberal-arts education. “I love how your schoolwork matters in the real world,” I said. And as long as my B.A. isn’t going to be contributing anything to resolving the energy crisis, well, I might as well at least get grades that are appropriately evaluative of the intellectual masturbation that I do. You know?

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