Grade inflation

USA Today writes on Princeton University’s effort to curb “grade inflation” by rationing As to, you know, “preserve academic integrity.”

Grade inflation “correction” is based on the theory that people will naturally fit into a bell curve, and that a C (or maybe a B) should be average.

If you accept that Princeton is a school that recruits smart students, you might dare say their students are
“above average.” Currently, As are awarded 46% of the time. Under the new scheme, they’d be limited to 35% of the time.
While this might be fine for comparing Princeton students against each other, it’s not applicable outside world. Imagine the poor Class of 2008 graduate who’s interviewing for a job and now has to explain that a Princeton C is really equivalent to a Brown B, and bursts into epilectic handwaving before curling up in a fetal position, lamenting the $40k/year he spent on tuition. (Oops, editorial comment snuck in.)

In an unrelated, and totally fictitious statement I just manufactured:

Princeton also announced it will roll back its tuition 11% and is abandoning the tenure system to better reflect the reality of the remaining 99% of the world’s workplace.

According to Jim “Dude” Academ, Director of the Dean’s Commission on Macroeconomic Prognostication, “Labor markets in university settings have been artificially restricted, inhibiting competition and presenting formidable barriers to entry. By enabling faculty to compete with slots, we aim to simulate innovation.”

When asked when the Dean’s office would be outsourced, he shifted around uncomfortably before announcing “End of interview.”


Among the problems is there’s no uniform way to apply the grading “curve.” For example, engineering classes often have assignments whose results are binary: 2 + 2 either equals four or it doesn’t, and if it doesn’t, you have an incorrect answer. To differentiate totally correct answers that are As and totally correct answers that are Bs, one might apply the squishy concept of “style points” or “class participation,” though this only makes grading more subjective, and introduces “faculty whim” into the mix.

For example, I had a religious studies course where the theme of my major paper was — I swear I’m not making this up — Biblical references in Star Trek(1). While I was very thorough in my analysis, I wouldn’t call it scholarly work. However, unbeknownst to me, the professor happened to be a huge fan. I got an A in the course.

The opposite happened to me in my fiction writing course. The instructor had
a bad experience in an engineering class a million years ago and sought vengeance by automatically giving engineering majors one letter grade lower. It may not have helped my position that my first story had a character who possessed psychic powers after going on drinking binges and my second story was a manic street preacher working in front of the Astrodome.

Grade “inflation” occurs in graduate school programs, though grades aren’t really as important as qualifying for or finishing the program. When I was in working on my Ph.D.(2), we had courses where we read a bunch of published works and talked about them. Everyone who shows up to class and isn’t obviously goofing off gets an A, though the papers are insanely boring and poorly written.

In my MBA program, every class seemed to have a grade curve of 3.0 – 4.0. The unwritten belief is (a) you had to meet some qualification to get in and (b) you’re paying for it — if you want to piss away $40k, you’re welcome to do so. Occasionally, exceptions were made. For example, one group obviously pulled their presentation out of their posteriors the night before. They were initially given an incomplete, but that was changed to a 2.5 after they complained to the Dean.

I think there are bigger concerns than “Grade Inflation.” (Like, say, keeping tuition from continuing to outpace inflation.)


(1) TOS (the original series). Star Trek: The Next Generation was in its first season.
(2) I never finished. I had some things come up in my personal life that were far more important, and I didn’t want to spend another seven years toiling.

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