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Across colleges, students possess varying opinions on grade inflation and academic rigor at the University.

January 31, 2024

Cornellians Express Conflicting Perceptions of University’s Alleged Grade Deflation

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Mia Ćuk ’24 first heard about the harsh difference in grading at Cornell compared to peer universities in her sophomore year of high school.

“I had met a Cornell alum in my sophomore year of high school, and she said that Cornell is known as being easy to get into [relative to the other Ivy League schools] but hard to get out of, while other Ivies are hard to get into but easy to get out of,” Ćuk said.

Cornellians have long argued whether or not students experience harsher or more lenient grading standards compared to other colleges.

The Sun asked transfer students about their conflicting perspectives on the competitiveness of Cornell compared to their prior schools.

Ziyaan Lokhandwalla ’26 is studying in Cornell’s Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management after transferring from the University of Texas at San Antonio. Lokhandwalla has found Cornell’s grading system as more challenging than their previous institution.

“My grade point average [at UTSA] was a perfect 4.0, but here it’s on the verge of a 3.7,” Lokhandwalla said. “The classes here are more difficult compared to where I used to be. You’re placed into such heavy coursework.”

Lokhandwalla said that Dyson’s caps on the amount of students who can receive top grades contribute to the school’s competitive culture.  

“We actually have a standard in Dyson, [where] nobody is allowed that A+ in any class unless you’re in the top 5 percent,” Lokhandwalla said. “So nobody’s allowed that 4.3 unless they have met an exponential standard. So [there] definitely [is] grade deflation in Dyson.”

The syllabus for AEM 4500: Resource Economics, a course in Dyson, reads: “As mandated by the Dyson Undergraduate Program Grading Policy, no more than 5 percent of the students in the class in a given semester may receive an A+. It is possible that no one receives an A+ in a given semester.” 

However, Nini Kaur ’26, a sophomore transfer student in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences from Colorado College, has not felt the same increase in academic pressure after transferring from Colorado College to Cornell.

“Initially when I came in here, I thought I’d feel this need to compete and show that I can keep up. But if anything, just because of the [large] size of the classes, it’s kind of easy to just do my own thing and feel comfortable in putting out whatever [work] I want to,” Kaur said.

On average, grades at Cornell have increased, following a national trend of grade inflation. In 1965, the average GPA at Cornell was 2.64, compared to 3.36 in 2006. 

Nationally, GPAs at colleges have increased by an average of just over 2.8 in 1983 to approximately 3.15 in 2013.

Prof. Gennady Samorodnitsky, engineering, believes he witnessed an upward trend in average grades in his time teaching at Cornell, which began in 1988. 

“I think it is true that the students with the same performance nowadays will get a higher grade than they used to,” Samorodnitsky said. “It doesn’t necessarily mean that overall the student performance is lower.

Prof. Kristen Warner, performing and media arts, taught for ten years at the University of Alabama before coming to Cornell in 2023. Since her arrival, Warner feels she assigns more work overall at Cornell because the administration expects a higher volume of material for students. 

“There is generally an expectation that students at Cornell will read more,” Warner said. “So when you are proposing your classes [to Cornell administration], one of the things you’ve got to do is talk about how many pages you’ll [have students] read and what the expectations are for homework and all these things, and so there is this expectation that [Cornell students] take [their] work seriously.”

Warner suggested that although Cornell professors may be encouraged to assign students a higher volume of coursework than at other schools, she believes that the school supports students through academic support resources.

“There are so many things here that are designed to help you succeed that aren’t available, or even viable, at other institutions,” Warner said. “So I think that there are things that the University is doing to try to keep an objective balance.”

But Prof. Cole Gilbert, entomology, said that Cornell’s competitive student body discourages students from reaching out for help. 

“[Students] hesitate to make use of the support the University offers — including office hours, tutoring and supplemental courses — because they think that ‘It’s a loser thing to ask for help,’” Gilbert said.

According to Gilbert student resources often have lackluster turnout due to the negative stigma surrounding reaching out for help. 

“Now especially, we always have supplemental courses and free tutoring services through the Learning Strategy Center, office hours of professors and … students don’t come.” 

Ultimately, Warner believes that distributing high grades to many students is not a negative phenomenon if the students deserve the grades. 

“My goal is for everybody to do well,” Warner said. “If everyone comes out with As and Bs, I don’t feel like I’ve done something wrong. In that case, I feel like the students have done what they needed to do and attempted to go above and beyond what the course expectations were.”