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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


“Princeton gets A in grade deflation, system gets F”

Six years ago, Princeton University adopted a new goal for grades issued in all academic departments: that A’s would account for no more than 35% of all grades.

Naturally, this met with some resistance from the student body, and rebellion has flared up again in the last several months. In September, reports the New York Times, Princeton’s student government sent a letter to the faculty suggesting that, though the policy does not set specific quotas, professors were being unnecessarily punitive in their attempts to enforce it. And last December, The Daily Princetonian, reversing its previous editorial stance, wrote an article condemning the policy, citing its “”many harmful consequences that outweigh the good intentions of the system.””

The most common objection is to the unfairness of the policy. “”The nightmare scenario, if you will, is that you apply with a 3.5 from Princeton and someone just as smart as you applies with a 3.8 from Yale,”” said a student in the Times article. Notwithstanding Ivy Leaguers’ perverse perceptions about what constitutes a “”nightmare scenario”” , it’s true — it’s extremely unfair that Princeton students should have to work much harder than students from peer universities to receive the same grades.

But Princeton has taken some steps to solve this problem. “”Early on,”” writes the Times, “”Dr. Malkiel sent 3,000 letters explaining the change to admissions officers at graduate schools and employers across the country, and every transcript goes out with a statement about the policy.”” The Princetonian rightly objects that Princeton cannot hope to inform every institution to which students might apply. However, they seem to have done a pretty good job covering the big ones, and it’s commonly understood that GPAs from different universities mean different things — no disrespect to our beloved UA, but no one would confuse an Arizona 3.5 with a Princeton 3.5.

The Princetonian writes, “”to accurately appreciate the meaning of Princeton’s grades, an admissions official or employer must be convinced that a 3.6 GPA from Princeton reflects greater achievement than the same GPA from Harvard is a barrier that will be difficult, and in some cases virtually impossible, to overcome.”” True. But the sin is Harvard’s.

Other arguments against intentional grade-deflating policies tend to fall flat. The Princetonian writes: “”Many take (grade deflation) into account when choosing courses, affecting their willingness to pursue challenging classes. These effects of Princeton’s grading policy stand in opposition to some of the critical elements of a liberal arts education: academic exploration, group discussion and collaboration.””

This is, no doubt, true to some degree. But it’s a charge that can be levied against any grading policy — in any system in which people are judged based upon how well they accomplish their objectives, there will be those who seek the simplest objectives possible. These are people who will probably never understand the value of a liberal education, no matter how many A’s they are promised. The primary purpose of taking a difficult class should not be to appeal to a potential employer but to improve oneself.

In spearheading the effort to combat grade inflation, Princeton has put its students at a bit of a disadvantage – but it has taken reasonable efforts to ameliorate that disadvantage. And the alternative is, like so many schools have elected, to distribute high marks not for distinguished work but to placate paying customers.

— Ben Harper is a philosophy senior who, though he just wrote an article condemning grade inflation, probably shouldn’t be looking that particular gift horse in the mouth. He can be reached at

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