In Response to: A Combustible Mix 

I taught marketing at a research I university for 35 years, retiring in 2013. I do not have the impression that students’ performance varied much during my career, but average grades did inflate. To the best of my knowledge, based on available research that I’ve read, grades do not predict much other than subsequent grades. That is, students with high grade averages as undergraduates will likely receive high grades in graduate courses. But, grades are poor predictors of career success measured by economic or alternative criteria.

By the end of my career, students tended to see even an A- as pejorative. After resisting for several years, I decided to follow the grading patterns of my colleagues. I did tell students that in a year or two, no one would care what I thought (what the grade was), but whether the students had learned the material would matter.

Students have a difficult time grasping the concept that work is a measure of output, or accomplishment, not energy expended. Only an ability to demonstrate a capacity to make sense of the subject matter counts. Organic chemistry was, by far, the most difficult course that I took at Princeton. I didn’t blame the professor or feel that somehow it should not have been more difficult than other courses. Some of life’s tasks are just harder than others. As President Truman said, “If you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen.”

When I was an undergraduate, I believed that the idea that “a C at Princeton was a good as an A everywhere else” probably was hubris. After graduation when I found myself in direct competition with peers who went to school elsewhere, I discovered that the notion about Princeton’s grades was more true than not.

Somehow, graduate schools, employers, and others who find themselves comparing candidates from different undergraduate programs must implicitly, if not explicitly, adjust for institutional differences in underlying measurement standards. Don’t college admissions staff face the same problem comparing applicants from different high schools? Is it the case that Professor Jones’ difficulty at NYU follows from the possibility that Princeton’s conversion of performance to grades is on a substantially different measurement scale than NYU’s? If Princeton grading standards are applied to a single NYU course, wouldn’t that distort the interpretation of an NYU transcript?

Murphy Sewall ’64
Windham, Conn.