Deflating the easy 'A'

Princeton students fear that a tough stance on grades may harm campus culture - and limit their appeal to grad schools.

When Adam Kopald exits Princeton University's gothic gates as a graduate in June 2005, he will not have a GPA. Nor will he be assigned a class rank. He may not even know the grades of his closest friends.

It's this lack of competition, say Princeton students, that has made for a much less cutthroat environment than one might expect from one of the country's most academically elite universities.

Some students argue that that's been a good thing for their school, where they say they strive to do their own best work rather than to outdo one another - but it's a luxury they now fear losing.

A new grading policy, to go into effect next year, will reduce the number of A-pluses, A's, and A-minuses for all courses to 35 percent, down from the current 46 percent. A's given for independent work will be capped at 55 percent.

"There's definitely going to be a competition that didn't exist before," says Mr. Kopald, a history major. "Because any way you cut it, there are only 35 percent of people who are going to get A's."

At a time when campuses are clamoring to appear more interested in the whole person, students' mental health, and well-rounded development, some wonder if the message being sent by instituting quotas isn't contradictory.

School administrators, however, argue that grade inflation cannot be ignored. Princeton first examined the problem six years ago.

"Our feeling then was that we could just let it go, and over the next 25 years everyone would be getting all A's," says Nancy Weiss Malkiel, dean of the college. "But would that really be responsible in terms of the way we educated our students?"

According to Dean Malkiel, the goals of 35 percent and 55 percent will align the number of A's granted with figures from the late 1980s and early '90s.

Other schools have tried to address grade inflation, using measures like including contextual information on transcripts, says Malkiel. And in 2002, Harvard limited students graduating with honors to 60 percent. But as far as Malkiel knows, this is the first widespread move to stem the trend of upward spiraling grades that dates back to the 1970s.

What caused grades to inflate

Experts blame grade inflation on everything from fears of the draft during the Vietnam War to a consumer mentality that expects higher marks in exchange for steeper tuition.

But some professors say students today are increasingly bold about haggling for higher marks. Often it's easier to give an A-minus instead of a B-plus than to argue.

Malkiel also says a broader culture of inflation may be a factor. Everything from high school GPAs to SAT scores have been on the rise.

But not all see the phenomenon of rising grades as a bad thing. William Coplin, a professor at the Maxwell School at Syracuse University, feels strongly there are a number of reasons why grade inflation is not just acceptable - but good.

He says that students learn in the classroom less than half of what they need to know for real life. Distributing higher grades gives them room to explore other areas of interest and to develop as people.

"Most students do not see college as a place to develop skills. They see it as a place to get a degree and have a high GPA," he says. "The truth is, skills are more important than GPA." Professor Coplin worries that attempting to stamp out grade inflation is simply "making the kids even crazier about grades."

Annie Ostrager, a politics major at Princeton, isn't convinced that grade inflation is a problem either.

"I personally have not perceived my grades to be inflated," says the junior. "I work hard and get good grades. But I don't really feel like grades are flying around that people aren't earning."

But most Princeton students acknowledge there is a problem - although many doubt that quotas are the best solution.

Matt Margolin, president of the student government, estimates that 325 of the 350 e-mails he has received from Princeton students express frustration with the new grading policy.

Princeton isn't alone in the battle against inflated grades. A study last year found that A's accounted for 44 to 55 percent of grades in the Ivy League, MIT, Stanford, and the University of Chicago.

Will Princeton stand alone?

Yet by drawing public attention to Princeton in particular, students worry it may come to be seen as the most flagrant example.

"Putting it in the public light like this has really damaged the image of a Princeton transcript," says Robert Wong, a sophomore studying molecular biology.

Malkiel has assured students this isn't true. In conversations with admissions officers at graduate schools, employers, and fellowship coordinators across the country, she says she has been told "that they would know going forward that a Princeton A was a real A." They even suggested that tougher grading will ultimately benefit Princeton students.

But not everyone is convinced.

"I would like to go to law school, so my eye has been on this proposal very carefully," says Mr. Margolin, a junior and a politics major. "My understanding is that law school decides your fate based mostly on GPA and LSAT scores."

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