Student Dispatch

Illustration: Daniel Baxter

Allie Spensley ’20
Photo: Stacy Jantz
“It’s never been easier to get an A at Princeton.” That was the conclusion opinion columnist Liam O’Connor ’20 reached after analyzing grading data for a much-discussed Daily Princetonian piece published in January. 

O’Connor’s interest in the subject began a year ago, when he read a report about grading trends published by the Office of the Dean of the College. The University-wide GPA in 2017–18 was 3.46, up from 3.39 in the previous year. The report also showed significant variation in the course GPA averages for different academic areas: The GPA for humanities courses was climbing toward 3.6, while the natural sciences were rising at a more modest pace and remained below 3.3.

“On a more personal level, I’d noticed throughout my time at Princeton ... that it seemed like people in certain fields of study would happen to get higher grades on average than other people,” said O’Connor, a geosciences major. “I wondered if it was part of a larger trend or an impression.” 

O’Connor would not say how he acquired the anonymized grading records for the past three years that were the basis for his Prince column. “The only thing I can say about that is that they are official, restricted, Office of the Dean of the College grades,” he told PAW. “How I got them is a secret I will take with me to my 65th reunion.”

O’Connor’s statistics generally aligned with the figures released by the University in October 2018, which showed a steady rise in A grades since Princeton ended its controversial “grade deflation” policy, in place from 2004 to 2014.

Dean of the College Jill Dolan said in a statement to PAW that Princeton “urges each department to set their own grading standards and to develop clear rubrics based on department and disciplinary norms,” adding that “effective, transparent student assessment requires the active engagement of faculty and students alike.” 

O’Connor argued that grading variations among divisions and departments can be problematic when “viewed by the outside world on an absolute scale.”

Grades are inflating steadily nationwide, according to University of Michigan economics professor Paul Courant *74, who was quoted in O’Connor’s article. “What Princeton showed us, I think, is that it’s not so easy to prevent [grade inflation],” Courant told PAW. 

Courant added that as grade averages inch higher, the GPA may be losing relevance as a marker of academic performance. O’Connor agreed, arguing that grading variations among divisions and departments can be problematic when “viewed by the outside world on an absolute scale.” A 3.4 GPA, for example, might be above average for a chemistry major, typical for an engineer, and below average for an English major. In his column, O’Connor specifically decried students who “game the system” by taking easy courses to counterbalance the ones in which they’ve struggled. 

For the past two years, O’Connor has written data-driven opinion columns with titles like “Geography is destiny at Princeton” and “How to find friends at Princeton,” exploring social and academic distributions on campus. 

“The big picture I’ve been interested in, that’s been driving all of these projects, is essentially what are the factors that influence how people perform at Princeton — ways they perform socially, in terms of things like eating clubs and connections, and how they perform academically,” he said. “... [T]here are a lot of factors beyond students’ control that are really impacting how they perform here.”