Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Grade Inflation and Princeton: A Report

By Richard Vedder

Of the Ivy League schools, it seems to me that Princeton has shown the most willingness to change in recent years. It decided to expand its student body by a few hundred --increasing access, a notion unheard of in the Ivies in recent times. It froze tuition levels for next fall for the first time in 40 years, although by sharply raising room and board rates, it made that innovation more symbolic than real. Most important, it has taken a tangible effort to reduce grade inflation, putting a limit on the number of "A" grades academic units can reward.

The latter was a brave move and a needed one. While the otherwise saintly Harry Lewis is partly right in saying increased grading rigor may lead students to avoid tough courses, the continued move away from distinguishing between student performance levels has reduced incentives for students to work. National data show students study embarrassingly little. When most students get "A"s in class, there is difficultly in assessing student performance, there is less effort put in by students to distinguish themselves, and we implicitly send a message that excellence is not something that needs real rewards.

A story in today's USA TODAY suggests that Princeton has had increases, not decreases, in applications as it has raised grading standards. Its graduates are not worried about getting into graduate schools or obtaining work. The public looking at grades of students realizes that an "A" at Princeton is more meaningful than an "A" at Harvard, and that a 3.5 GPA at Princeton might be the equal of, say, a 3.65 GPA at Yale or Penn. Others are still afraid to follow the Princeton example, but the evidence to date seems to suggest their fears of adverse consequences of intentional deflationary grade policies are grossly exaggerated.

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