Last fall, as a graduate student instructor at the University of California, Berkeley, I graded undergraduate papers for the first time. It was a basic prompt assigned in an introductory sociology course, so I assumed that a competent, complete answer deserved an “A.” My grades had a Princeton-style distribution: almost half A’s, and B’s for the rest. When I submitted a few sample papers and the distribution for the professor to check, she demanded that I re-grade every single one. A’s, she insisted, are for excellent work that goes above and beyond the norm; the rest get B’s and C’s.
Four years at the number-one ranked undergraduate institution in the country, and I had to go all the way to number 20 to see the difference between exceptional work and simply following instructions.
Princeton will officially be ending its experiment in “grade deflation.” Most of the endless discussion that began before I set foot on campus centered on claims that the specific way grade deflation was implemented was not “fair.” “Fair” seems like an awfully subjective standard, and indeed, the faculty committee that recommended an end to the policy put a great deal of stock in students’ subjective — and frequently, wrong — perceptions of the policy.
According to the committee’s survey of students, 80 percent of Princeton students believed that they have at least “occasionally” had a grade “deflated,” and 40 percent thought it has happened frequently. But the committee’s data suggests that the actual decline in grades due to the deflation policy was modest to non-existent. It’s mathematically possible but barely plausible to think that, during a period where average GPAs went up .05 points, 80 percent of Princeton students at some point received “B+’s” for “A-” quality work.
Similarly, the committee noted that department-level grade targets were often “misinterpreted as quotas.” This interpretation is flatly wrong and most undergraduates are smart enough to know it. Another frequent gripe was that Princeton students were disadvantaged in graduate school admissions (for which the committee found no evidence) and that grade deflation deterred the recruitment of athletes (which Princeton’s consistent dominance of Ivy athletics belies).
What these misinterpretations provide is not an accurate picture of the world, but a convenient excuse. They allow students to explain why they are no longer cruising to a 4.0 like they did in high school, and they permit professors to set a higher standard for their courses while displacing blame onto a third party (in my time, usually Dean Malkiel). But willful misinterpretations are a bad basis for changes in policy. Should Princeton eliminate affirmative action because some decry it as “quotas” for underrepresented minorities?
These arguments, and virtually all the discussions about the policy, largely stay on the terrain of “fairness.” What I want to point out, though, is that whether or not grade deflation was implemented in a “fair” manner — and we can certainly find examples of how it was applied unfairly — the policy also reflected deeper principles of justice. It’s just that, to see them, we have to walk out the FitzRandolph Gate to consider the university’s broader place in society.
Sociologists like Annette Lareau have consistently shown that upper-middle-class students come to schools like Princeton not just advantaged in their academic skills, but also endowed with extra-academic skills. They have far more experience demanding attention and accessing services from the educational system. Let me make this more concrete: We have every reason to believe that wealthy students are more likely to complain about their B+ and get it raised to an A-. Working and lower-class kids are more likely to just accept their grades, because that’s what their cultural tool kit allows them to do.
Grade inflation not only worsens stratification within universities, but between them. Debates about grade deflation at Princeton nearly always contrast Princetonians’ GPAs to those of our “competitor institutions” — that is to say, the comically high grades given out at Harvard and Yale. But Princeton students are not just “competing” with other Ivy Leaguers for Rhodes Scholarships and spots at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. They are also “competing” with other college graduates — the vast majority of whom come from public universities — in the much broader universe of graduate school admissions and the labor market.
Although grades at public and private institutions were once comparable, and both have inflated their grades significantly since the 1960s, private schools have done it more (community colleges, which teach nearly half of America’s undergraduates, have witnessed no grade inflation at all). Even after controlling for “talent level,” grades at private institutions are .1 to .2 points higher than at flagship public universities like Berkeley. Admissions officers at graduate institutions systematically favor students who come from grade-inflated schools, despite candidates being otherwise equal. The structural conditions of the modern public university — minimal face time with professors, huge classes, heavier reliance on testing over papers, pressures to weed out students universities can no longer afford to teach, less treatment of students as paying private “consumers” who can be “dissatisfied” — makes bargaining for grades more difficult.
Of course, many Princeton students insist that they produce better work than students at other institutions, where grades are lower. Whether or not this is true, it’s unconvincing. Princeton students have access to resources and instruction far beyond those of the vast majority of American college students. So our standards ought to be higher. After all, shouldn’t grades reflect what we, as individuals, make of the very real advantages that Princeton offers us, rather than rewarding us for having those advantages in the first place?