The spring semester of my freshman year, I took BIOG 1440: Introductory Biology: Comparative Physiology, a popular intro-level biology course. The course content was interesting and enjoyable; however, each exam and assignment I completed was a devastating reminder that the median of the course would be a C+ or B- — without question.
Even worse, I learned from the course syllabus that the curving of all freshmen-level biology core courses to a C+ or B- has been a standard policy at Cornell for years, a sign of grade deflation. Grade deflation, the act of lowering the median grade of classes relative to other courses or institutions, is a highly controversial topic that surrounds colleges and has been acknowledged on the national level.
The effects of grade deflation are far-reaching and undoubtedly horrible. Negative connotations and labels like “weed-out courses” are often associated with grade-deflated courses because of their apparent intention to “weed out” students (i.e. convince students to drop the class and even reconsider their career path due to the difficulty of the course). This is an especially large issue for pre-graduate school students and engineers. Moreover, non-pre-grad and non-engineer students, or those who wish to simply learn about a subject, are unjustifiably punished for taking a course that might interest them but is grade-deflated.
Being a pre-medical student, I have had several personal conflicts with the phenomenon of grade deflation. As a freshman, I dropped CHEM 2070: General Chemistry I and considered dropping BIOG 1440 entirely out of fear of earning a B- or lower in both classes. I have also opted not to take BIOMG 2800: Genetics, a popular class among pre-meds, because I have heard from my peers that the course is overly stressful and difficult, a major reason being that it is curved to a B- or B.
Encountering grade deflation has led me to become upset with the importance of GPA for medical school in general. I stopped attending pre-health advising seminars because I felt students were too often encouraged to choose easier majors and take easier courses to conserve their GPA. It is already easy enough to focus on earning a good grade in a class more so than learning; grade deflation only exacerbates this problem.
Removing grade deflation would provide more reasonable approaches to other issues regarding academics. In 2011, Cornell controversially stopped the online posting of median grade reports for all courses, a practice started in 1996. A major motive for this decision was that the publishing median grades was “used by students to select courses that give high grades,” consequently contributing to grade inflation. And in 2008, the University began posting median grades of courses on official transcripts for all undergrads — another contentious action. These choices could be reanalyzed, if not changed for better with the removal of grade deflation.
Each course then would have a more level playing field and students would have an equal opportunity for academic success, regardless of career choice or personal interest.
Interestingly, the University’s choices allude to a different take to grade deflation, that there are benefits to grade deflation that possibly outweigh its detriments. Some of these include encouraging students to work hard and thus increase Cornell’s prestige among peer institutions. However, this argument fails to account for the side effects of these benefits; while grade deflation may develop good work ethic, it also fosters unhealthy competition among students rather than collaboration, since a much lower number of students can earn As. Consequently, students are more likely to experience unhappiness, stress and mental health issues. Encouraging hard work is invaluable, but at what cost?
Cornell’s aggrandized prestige is also limited somewhat by the prevalence of high school seniors that use academic rigor to help decide which college they want to attend. The saying “Cornell is the easiest Ivy to get into, but the hardest to stay in” has become an all-too-common line among Cornellians and non-Cornellians, reflecting the immense difficulty that some academic programs possess. If grade deflation is eliminated, people can have more discussions pertaining to the other, more positive aspects of Cornell that can help guide their college choice.
However, there is a delicate balance to be achieved between grade deflation and inflation. Grade inflation, the other extreme of the spectrum, can be just as bad. If all students in all courses receive an A+, the value of the grade is diminished, likely unreflective of student diversity in academic performance. Therefore, the ideal median grade for most, if not all intro-level and intermediate STEM courses would fall somewhere between a B+/A-. This would not punish students for choosing to take difficult courses, but still reward top-performing students appropriately with an A or A+. Most computer science courses do this, and others, like the intensive six-credit introductory Mandarin and Japanese classes, do this as well.
Cornell, with its academic rigor and low acceptance rate, is difficult enough to attend, so why must we be further challenged for choosing to be surrounded by brilliant peers? Eliminating grade deflation would elevate the general well-being of our student population and continue to maintain Cornell’s reputation as one of the world’s most prestigious universities.
Nile Jones is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Rivers of Consciousness runs every other Wednesday this semester.