February 27, 2004

Ivy League Schools Examine Grades

Print More

Grade inflation has long been a topic of serious discussion in the Ivy League. After a 2001 investigation that revealed that 91 percent of Harvard University’s graduating class graduated with honors, the institution vowed to reform their grading system. However, a 2003 study has shown that the number of “A” grades at Harvard has increased to nearly 50 percent, resparking the debate in several academic journals.

“I get the feeling that maybe Harvard’s leading the pack a little in terms of inflation, but I don’t know by how much and I don’t think there’s a huge disparity between us and other schools,” said Najeeb Tarazi, a Harvard freshman.

Princeton University grade reports show that in 2002, 45.5 percent of the freshman class’s grades were some form of an “A.” Also, the number of “A” grades received has increased since 1997, while the number of “B,” “C,” “D” and “F” grades has decreased over the same period of time. While at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, new proposals for an intermediate grading system will take on its own form of grade inflation. An intermediate grading system could give a student expecting a “C+” a “B/C” on his or her transcript. Yale University no longer posts grade reports, though they openly admit that grade inflation is a problem. Grade inflation is also an issue at Cornell.

“Cornell is very similar to other universities in this respect [grade inflation], but we are very different from Harvard in that our percentage of graduates receiving honors is much lower. This has much to do with the fact that less Cornell graduates choose to commit to a honors program their senior year,” said Associate Provost Isaac Kramnick.

Only 30 percent of Cornell graduates received honors in 2000, while that figure was between 70 percent and 90 percent for Harvard. With such a presence in the Ivy League having endured since the ’70s, grade inflation has perplexed faculty in almost every university, especially when it comes to the causes and solutions for the phenomena While everything from affirmative action to lower SAT scores have been said to initiate the trend, there is still much debate about the subject.

“We don’t know exactly what explains it, we have some hunches, some hypothesis,” Kramnick said. “One of them is the decline between hierarchical difference between teachers and students. This means the rise in student involvement in evaluating professors creating a decline in the formal distance. Some faculty have lost confidence in the ability to label students ‘A’ or ‘C,’ while the students feel a more legitimate ability to question these grades and get them changed,” Kramnick said.

Still, there are differing opinions about the cause of inflated grades.

Charlie Walcott, dean of faculty at Cornell, has cited a different case.

“I think it started around the time of the war in Vietnam,” Walcott said. “The idea was to give students higher grades to avoid the draft.”

According to Nancy Malkiel, nobody speculated that it would reach the level that it is at today. She was baffled by the grades found in Princeton’s recent graduating classes.

“Who could have ever imagined that we would reach a point where a student with a straight C average would rank 1,078 out of a graduating class of 1,079?” Malkiel asked.

Grade inflation reform at Cornell appears unlikely; Kramnick said that there are no initiatives among Cornell’s colleges to confront the issue. According to Walcott a policy that the University Faculty Senate proposed several years ago to include the median grade next to the student’s grades on transcripts, but this policy has not yet been implemented.

Archived article by Teah Colson