90.9 WBUR - Boston's NPR news station
Top Stories:
Here and Now with Robin Young
Public radio's live
midday news program
With sponsorship from
Mathworks - Accelerating the pace of engineering and science
Accelerating the pace
of engineering and science
Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Harvard Professor Gives Two Sets Of Marks To Combat Grade Inflation

Harvard University's Massachusetts Hall. (Wikimedia Commons)

Harvard University’s Massachusetts Hall. (Wikimedia Commons)

Harvard University is back in the news for questions over grade inflation. A Harvard professor and longtime critic of grade inflation discovered yesterday that the most frequent mark given at the university is a perfect A.

Harvard government professor Harvey Mansfield has long been a critic of grade inflation. He’s developed his own way of trying to combat it: giving students two sets of grades — the one they deserve and the one that shows up on their transcript.

Mansfield discusses his strategy and the issue of grade inflation with Here & Now’s Robin Young.

Interview Highlights: Prof. Harvey Mansfield

On how grade inflation hurts students

“Right now you don’t know what you’re really good at, because you can get an A in a course that may not really be your specialty, or that you should really develop. So students aren’t told the truth, they are flattered.”

“When good grades are easy, people don’t become less concerned with grades, rather they become more concerned. Now in order to get into a good graduate school … you need to have a near perfect record, and that does induce more stress. You can’t find a student who can take a C in stride anymore.”

On professors who are complicit in grade inflation

“What we are missing is a sense of the common good. You can analogize it to a company that pollutes. A professor who gives a whole lot of As is reducing the value of an A for his colleagues and the rest of the faculty … A professor has the right to give the grades he wants, but that’s always been understood with a responsibility that’s attached to it, mainly to see to it that you don’t debase our common currency.”


Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
  • Tim Rohe

    How exactly does prof. Mansfield’s “system” fight grade inflation? As long as the grade that goes on the transcript is a “perfect A,” his private grade is irrelevant. Just giving the students accurate feedback, but still granting them a free pass, is not an incentive for the students to improve. I also don’t buy the argument that if you give a bunch of Harvard students C’s that they’ll all commit hara kiri. It’s pretty laughable for him to condemn grade inflation and say that it degrades the value of a Harvard education while still participating in it. The only thing this article accomplished was for prof. Mansfield to feel better about himself by deluding himself into believing that he’s taking a stand.

  • Sarah

    The problem of grade inflation is much more serious and far reaching than was mentioned in this story. An ivy league student with straight A’s on their report card will ultimately have much better chances of getting into graduate programs than B and C students of strong schools that don’t have as much name value. I don’t think that it is fair to focus this story on individuals at Harvard who may receive lower grades than their peers, because of grade inflation, and to ignore how it affects students across the country. This problem will be reflected in the work force if individuals receive jobs based on their transcripts, but may not necessarily be as qualified as indicated.

  • AZtruthteller

    I’m bristling at the suggestion by one of your hosts that a liberal might not oppose grade inflation. Most students going to Harvard are already examples of “wealth incumbency.’ That they should also expect to get As whether they do A work or not is further evidence of the same. Harvey Mansfield is right to give his students the information about how they really rank, but by giving them an inflated official grade he is ensuring that they will sail through life on the ship of privilege that got them to Harvard in the first place. I don’t see much to celebrate in that.

    • Robin Y

      just to be clear, a host didn’t suggest that, the guest did!
      thanks for the comments. .all interesting.

      • AZtruthteller

        Oops–I was doing laundry and obviously not paying full attention–hope I got the other things right! My apologies.Actually, I’m relieved. But I’d have to give myself a C-

      • it_disqus

        The host did bring the whole liberal/conservative discussion up. I’m still not sure why or what it added other than to try to discredit the guest with NPR liberal listeners.

    • frharry

      Actually, it’s us liberals who have always believed that education was the great equalizer and the opportunity for those born without silver spoons to make their marks on our society through hard work and determination. Grade inflation flows out of notions of entitlement born out of privilege. While conservatives often decry such notions, they tend to operate out of those presumptions regularly. And reap the benefits.

  • Kelly Barton

    I am an adjunct instructor and a liberal. However, I agree with Professor Mansfield. I have found that a few students will drop my class after their first exam because I do not change their grade of which they earned. I have caught myself trying to rewrite questions that may be easier for students to interpret or experience more “success” in answering. Once I realized what I was doing, I changed the exam process, breaking down the content and teaching study skills that can help them be successful in internalizing information. This technique proved to be helpful, but I still have a few students who choose to drop the class and take it with another instructor that offers inflated grades. Professor Mansfield’s technique of offering two grades could be beneficial for those students who are genuinely interested in knowing how much they really understand. I do not believe that this issue is related to liberal or conservative values.

  • bahfafah

    Grade inflation is not a matter of conservative or liberal; it is a matter of courage. Teachers fearful of backlash from giving realistic grades, or –horrors–failing grades are crippling their students, but the cowards they are are just passing the damage on. It takes courage today to expect students to accept responsibility for their performance; courageous teachers will not allow themselves to be coerced into accepting blame for student failure.
    Not all universities suffer grade inflation. My younger daughter, a Russian and International Studies major, attends Willamette University in Salem, Oregon, where getting A’s is tough.
    Here’s a story: When my son was in his early teens I coached his youth baseball team. One of our boys hit a routine pop up in the infield. He trotted off to first expecting to be out, but the ball hit the shortstop on the head and fell safely to the ground. The park was momentarily quiet until a voice rang out from the parents section, “Good job!” No, bad job; catching the ball is a good job. One can give encouragement without praise, but many of today’s youth are praise junkies and we are enabling them to be so.

  • bruccio09

    “…where all the children are above average…” = woebegone (Not Lake Wobegon). If everyone makes an “A” the evaluative marking becomes meaningless. Marking/grading is innately competitive. In all arenas the tacit common-sense understanding of the game is that not everyone wins. That’s the whole point. Otherwise all bets are off and the game shuts down. If the goal is to award everyone equally, accounting for learning style, relative achievement in competition with oneself only, then its a different matter. But in academe, as in business, the arts, sport, etc. — the hierarchical is unavoidable.

  • Ray Carney

    Ray Carney

  • Ray Carney

    Good story, and thanks to Prof. Mansfield for raising this issue one more time. I am
    a Professor at Boston University and would like to add a faculty member’s
    perspective to the discussion. Administrators in my university (and in many
    other universities) award faculty pay increases based largely, and often
    exclusively, on faculty members’ student course evaluations. Faculty who receive
    higher student evaluations for their teaching are, almost without exception,
    regarded as being better teachers than faculty who get mixed or lower evaluations,
    and that opens the system to “grade gaming.” It does not take a psych professor
    to figure out that students prefer easy courses over hard ones, and prefer faculty
    members who give them As rather than Cs. The whole evaluation system becomes
    corrupted by the administrative emphasis placed on which courses and teachers receive the highest evaluations. And once their pay is at stake, it becomes almost impossible for faculty members to resist easing course requirements and raising student grades to “buy” favorable evaluations. In the final irony, a few months later, rather than upbraiding them for giving out too many As, their Chairmen and Deans then reward them with pay raises. But I’d argue that, from where I sit, grade inflation is only the tip of the iceberg. If anyone is interested in reading more, I posted an
    essay on the internet a few months ago about a few of the other lamentable consequences of a “customer-based” educational system. It can be found under “The Two Cultures—The Conflict Between Business Values and the Life of the Mind.”

    • Alan

      Professor Carney, I teach at the University of California. My students do not know their final grades when they fill out their evaluations in the last week of class. My class is highly rated by students and yet ranks as one of the most difficult in the dept. So unless the evaluations are done AFTER the students receive their grades i find this argument unpersuasive. But i completely agree with you about the dangers of commodifying education. It also undermines a liberal arts education which i continue to believe is invaluable to a student’s future.

      • Foulkeblows

        They might not know their final grades, but they know their grades on assignments given throughout the semester and so have a sense of how their grade is shaping up. Perhaps in yours you give no grades until the end, but that is not the case for most courses.

  • Sher

    Wellesley College took on the responsibility of grade accuracy that Harvard and other Ivy league schools were seemingly too cowardly to take on. Wellesley took an honest look at their grading in 2002 and by 2003 ” faculty voted in favor of specific measures to address this inconsistency and reaffirm the college’s grading standards.”
    This takes a lot of courage on the part of faculty, administration, and students, but eliminates the need for this dual grading system employed by Prof. Mansfield at Harvard. It can’t just be that the women of Wellesley can handle this honesty better than a coed student body at Harvard and other grade-inflated institutions. There can be a lot of reasons that schools think their students are not up to this level of honesty–and perhaps some of this starts at home, but the schools become enablers and the impact can be seen in our post-college workforce, both in government and in the private sector. It’s more than likely that this “trend” of grade inflation will continue, so no one should be surprised when we, as a country, continue to pay the price economically and ethically. We live in hyped-up times where the spin of superlatives and positive language have taken the place of what is real and honest. It’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes” all over and over again. I think it’s time to really see it, name it, and change it.

    • sasc1

      I have thought the very same thing, the emperor’s new clothes is exactly the way to put it. Well said.

  • Dylan Huey

    I am pretty darn liberal and his conservative/liberal comment makes no sense. Liberals want everyone to have a shot at a fair education, not based on your family standing or economic standing. That says nothing about everyone getting A’s. A system that says you can earn a position based on how hard you work. Which, from what I often understand, is a bit of the opposite of what the ivy league schools often have. Where kids get in based on legacy families and schools looking to make money off of tuition. I know they offer financial aid but that is a small percentage of the over all students. To put a political spin on this is only going to hurt the conversation.

  • Casey Culver

    I think what causes more stress than receiving a bad grade, is going through life being told that you’re good at something (getting A’s) only to find out that you’re unable to compete in the real world (making money). You’re faced with both the denial that would come with always being told you were good, as well as, being forced to go back to square one to figure out what you’re actual value is, which in many cases is probably followed by surrender.

  • Dr.Know


  • Prof008

    As a post-secondary educator, I take great umbrage at the idea that liberal faculty give inflated grades and conservatives fight it. Quite absurd, and a pretty simplistic question to ask your guest.

    Grade inflation has long been a discussion in higher ed, as other comments state, but all A’s isn’t what we’ve been fighting. We’ve been fighting for a C to be considered average. Maybe Harvard should consider some learning outcomes, and perhaps NEASC should take a look at their accreditation. I’m curious about how such absurdist grade inflation will factor in to a school’s rankings under the new Federal Ranking System the Obama administration is trying to roll out.

  • Natalie

    I do not see how political affiliation is relevant on this topic. A grade is something that is earned by hard work, application, investing time, etc. I have had professors give an exam in a large class and the average be a “D”. Instead of just inflating the exam grades to passing, the professors readminister a different type of exam and will either average the two grades or let the higher one stand. This allows the professor to gauge the gaps in associating the lectures to knowledge retention. It also allows the student to EARN a better grade. I am a full-time student (about to finally graduate), I work full time, single mom, etc. I would be furious if I did not take the time to study and failed an exam only have a professor just give me an “A”. Discouraging an adolescent to take responsibility for their grades seems contradictory of the very foundation of higher education. P.S. I am what one would label a social liberal.

  • Dr.Know

    Sorry ’bout that! While grade inflation at Harvard, or any other elite college, is a serious problem, I believe that our education system has much greater flaws that deserve our attention. Our society will not be crippled in the future if Harvard grads have an inflated and entitled self-perception. However, our society will be crippled if we don’t find the will and the means to educate all our kids to some reasonable standards. I believe our public school system through high school is largely broken and in need of serious rehab. Maybe some bright students at Harvard will take this as a challenge to fix that problem.

  • Anon

    As an undergrad and master student at a regional university, I knew I could get an ‘A’ in most classes. The result- I never reached potential, I reay didn’t respect my degree, and it has made my doctoral degree more difficult.

  • Sharon Drummond

    Grade inflation is a huge problem in our system of higher education. It is disconcerting to hear that this is the case at Harvard also. Grade inflation is neither a liberal or conservative issue. I am as liberal as they come and I consider it a plague upon our educational process – it degrades the quality of learning that takes place for the students. If we are going to engage in grade inflation we might as well just use a simple pass/fail approach. I tell my students that by enrolling in my class and paying their tuition they have guaranteed themselves an opportunity to demonstrate to me the extent to which they can master the material presented. They are not guaranteed a good grade just for getting their name on the roster. If we really want students to learn, we cannot operate our institutions of learning like simple diploma mills. It is a shame that Professor Mansfield feels powerless to change the system.

  • Robert Thomas

    It’s hard for me to hear Professor Mansfield’s complaint without remembering how, in what the professor perhaps remembers as some of the “old days”, the Business School in the 1970s, as well as Phillips Andover and Yale before it, graduated George W. Bush (with some kind of grades or other) without having taught him the difference between “dissemble” and “disassemble”.

    In this way, these institutions have drawn for themselves an earthier label than my mother would have used: “Gentlewomen of the Town”.

    In this sense, they and their northeastern brothers operate in what amounts to a well-appointed, ivy-accented disorderly house.

    • it_disqus

      When your response is “Well George Bush…”, do you really think you are contributing to the conversation?

      • Robert Thomas

        The very fact of “Harvard” as a concept and apex of privileged Brahminism and of Mansfield as a political contrarian are the only reasons that this segment was produced by _Here and Now_. Eastern Seaboard Parochial Radio (masquerading as “NPR”) has been a tenacious party to the phony-baloney flatulence of Ivy League exceptionalism for decades. How can this kind of hypocritical theater help but attract jibes?

        On the other hand, consideration of the sentiments recorded here in this thread (despite their anecdotal aspect) points up an apparently legitimate concern for an eventuality that’s resulted in a tidal wave of academical whinging and timorous palsy (only sporadically relieved by moral paralysis) on the part of instructors nationwide.

        As denizens of our finest academic institutions lament this long, dark tea-time at departmental cocktail parties across the country, one hopes their contributions to the conversation will remain convivial.

        • it_disqus

          Thanks for the clarification Bob.

    • PMinMA

      Just as the program host’s digression into politics was off the mark, so too is bringing in comparisons with 40 years ago. At least at Andover, Bush did not earn A’s. The institutional, actually societal, sin of that era then was that students with learning differences were treated as failures and shunted out of serious academics. There certainly was an old-boy network at play, and that meant that being accepted to these schools in that era was more — but not solely — an indication of a student’s family connections. But the grading in those days was actually quite harsh.

      • Robert Thomas

        Professor Mansfield was the one who invoked a malignant historical progression. From the language he used during the interview, Mansfield presumably believes that things were once better and are now worse. If we assume he refers to relatively recent decades rather than to, say, the eighteenth century (though this is not impossible, considering Mansfield’s oeuvre and great age), how is the comparison “off the mark”?

        I’m happy to hear that the “old-boy network” no longer plays any role in the world of tony preps. My world view is cleansed!

        “At least at Andover, Bush did not earn As.” Well, thank goodness for that.

        • PMinMA

          Robert is completely right that the whole topic of grade inflation implies historical perspective. I framed my comment poorly. My comment would have been more accurately directed at what I take to be the error of conflating admission/graduation standards with grading standards in different eras. My casual observation would be, in fact, that they have moved in opposite directions. As admission has become more difficult and more democratic at many elite institutions, grading has become more congratulatory. And in the Bush era, the attrition rate (at Andover, at least) due to poor grades was, if anything, depressingly high, so in that sense grades and graduation served as a corrective filter for prevailing admission policies.
          And while I would not say that the old-boy network no longer plays ANY role in admission, it does play a diminished role. Weaker applicants who would otherwise wash out quickly in the review process might get a second look if mom/dad is an alum, for instance. But they are much less likely to be accepted if they are, in the end, unacceptable!

          • Robert Thomas

            How it’s possible to ascertain the particular worth or deservedness of an American eighth-grader seems a huge puzzle to me. I can’t say that knowing how to stand up for a principal and how to sit down on one’s own stool – or how to tie a decent windsor knot, for that matter – is a much less valid criteria for receiving a shot at becoming the next Prodigious Hickey than any other. I’m happy if someone’s found a satisfactory way to do it. Perhaps new techniques in genome sequencing or functional MRI are involved?

            Since few parents (I would guess, fewer than a tenth of a percent) around the country are aware even of the existence of Hill School or Deerfield or Choate, wherever are young candidates found, if not recreating on Wellesley Island?

            What leads to the dissonance between harsh admissions exclusivity on the one hand and codling performance assessment on the other?

  • Rick

    I am an academic and have a daughter who is a dean at a to be unnamed Ivy league we are VERY liberal and are more offended than anyone about grade inflation, We agree completely with the professor that this practice cheapens the coin of the realm

  • Sara Bellum

    Robyn and others, do you have any idea how important this story is?!?

    For the record, I teach biology and environmental science courses at a community college, but I have also taught at a state University in California and at Boston University, additionally I am certified in adult education instruction.

    For starters, it is the community colleges who are accused of doing exactly what Mansfield freely admits to doing: dumbing down the material so that more students get higher grades. In my work I take tremendous pains not to do this, and it is a challenge, because it is simply the reality that many students entering community college do not have the preparedness to get into a 4 year college or pass college level classes. (But this isn’t true for all of them, many are taking advantage of a less expensive education for their first 2 years.)

    The more warm bodies community colleges have attending, the more money they get. Funding structures are different than those of private Universities. The more of these students that do well and graduate, even more money. Therefore the pressure is indeed on cc’s to “dumb it down”, or as Mansfield and others euphemistically call it, “grade inflation”.

    What is particularly striking here is that I tell my students that regardless of where they are attending school, an A in my class has to be the equivalent of an A in any other class, whether at Harvard (I often say) or at a community college, because that is what accreditation is supposed to do, is is supposed to equalize performance standards – and learning (many would disagree that that successfully happens, but that is another story). I say this so that the students can understand that I won’t be dumbing it down for them, but also that they can be proud/ confident that an A in my class is an A in any other class of the same subject and same level, and they they are getting the same degree of information and instruction as Harvard, etc. students would get in the same class.

    So I find is astounding that Mansfield not only concedes to dumbing things down, and thus inappropriately grading performance, but that he makes it sound as if he has no choice. Then he has the audacity to say that conservatives generally care more about grade fairness. He then tries to neutralize his inflammatory statements by saying ‘let’s not be divisive”. Once the cat is out of the bag, sir, it is out, and you put it there. I find this claim erroneous, and offensive. I can guess where he is coming from: it is based in the mythology of the bleeding heart liberal, that such liberals want all students to feel confident and have their esteem boosted so much so that we care more about their feelings than their grade performance, and therefore are more likely to give them all gold medals (or higher than deserved grades) so that they can feel a part of the grand community and are more ‘fairly judged’ in educational societies regardless of race, color, etc.

    This is a myth. I am a progressive among conservatives where I teach, and I can tell you the most conservative at my institution are the least concerned with student performance, they are much more concerned with taking home the biggest paycheck for the least amount of work. But that’s my experience, I wouldn’t apply this to the entire rest of the nation. But if nothing, I hope it dispels this fallacious idea Mansfield seeks to promote regarding conservative vs liberal approaches to education. It is the conservatives who created the worst possible nightmare for primary education nationwide, the unfunded, horrific “No Child Left Behind” strategy that seeks to take more $ out of public schools and put more into private, ultimately.

    So how is it that Mansfield admits his complete lack of integrity without even flinching, by admitting he dumbs down – er, inflates grades – as if he isn’t culpable, and it is simply a product of the system? It IS partly, definitely a product of the system (if you fail too many students, you look bad, you don’t get tenure, admin makes life harder for you, etc.), but the people who have the power to change that are the instructors, we certainly can’t wait for the administration to get on board. We the teachers on the front lines must show them what must be done and how – and why, and yes, even if it risks our getting tenure or being the most popular teacher at the institution.

    Community colleges are considered the Walmarts of education due to low
    cost and low standards for acceptance, and yet it is the community
    colleges who have the best college level instructors over all. Why?
    Because the entire job of the instructor at a cc is to teach. There
    isn’t the high pressure to publish or perish, or do grant funded
    research, so typically cc teachers are much more interested and motivated to do
    a good job; this is my experience as a teacher and as a student. Cc instructors tend to have more modest egos devoted to job performance over job appearance, since they aren’t hanging so much of their self worth and identity on being Ivy League professors.

    Sure this isn’t true for all instructors, of course there are
    always some that are not good at or motivated to do the job well, regardless of where you are. However, some of my best teachers were high school instructors who later moved on to community colleges. The worst teachers? Ones at
    Universities, who see teaching as tedious chore, and regardless of how marvelous
    their research resumes may be, the vast majority typically have had no
    experience at instruction whatsoever in HOW to teach. I

    do have to thank Mansfield for openly speaking about this rampant problem that I believe is a problem nationwide.

    Thank you Here and Now so much for sharing this story.

    • Robert Thomas

      Thirty years ago, between jobs, I took some courses at my local Community College and had some of the best experiences out of all my years of schooling. Norman Miller taught courses in Philosophy (I took four: Introduction to the Western Tradition; Animal Rights & Human Obligations; Formal Logic; Comparative Survey of World Religion). These little courses were transformative for me. Decades later, I stumbled across an account from popular fiction writer Laurie R. King (“The Beekeeper’s Apprentice”):

      “It is extraordinary, how often in life ideas and teachers reach out and grab a person. A teacher by the name of Norman Miller — overworked, under-challenged, perpetually rumpled, the very essence of curmudgeonly — was my own encounter on the road to Damascus. This gruff individual taught logic, philosophy, and religious studies, and was the first to suggest that religion was a passion that could permeate all life, a drive like any other, not some ethereal wimpiness. Typical of Miller was the debate staged between him and a philosopher whose difficult belief it was that all matter was illusion. Miller’s response was to pick up the nearest chair and heave it at the man, which rather ended the debate.”

      -Laurie King [from her autobiography page at her website].

      Miller didn’t give out grades cheaply.

      At the same institution, a teacher named Ed Lodi was so concerned that every one of his students be proficient at the techniques he taught in his calculus course that he took it as his own personal failure whenever anyone in any section failed to answer a *single* test question properly. His goal was that everyone get an A.

      Another math instructor whose name I have unjustifiably forgotten moonlighted from his job at IBM as a teacher of abstract algebra. He graded fairly but was most concerned that his students be truly taken with the majesty of mathematics. I’m no mathematician, but it worked on me.

      Community College excellence.

      • Sara Bellum

        Thanks much for sharing that, Robert. I, probably like most, feel the tendency to take it personally when a student fails. But only for a moment – then I remind myself that I’ve gone to GREAT lengths to make the learning process attainable, interesting, challenging, current, and fair, and if they aren’t able to take advantage of that, there’s no more to be done at that time. For what it’s worth, once I account for driving and grading and all the time spent on prep as an adjunct, I’ve figured my pay to amounts to about minimum wage. I’d sure love to make more, and I’d probably be better served personally if I spent less time on class and more on my other job. But it’s what teachers do. Making the material easier, or handing out an undeserved grade will only please the Deans, and it would teach the student they will be rewarded for doing a mediocre to lousy performance.

  • Stephen

    I have been both a full-time professor at a top private university and an adjunct professor at another regional university. At both places I was a grade inflater. Certainly it would take more courage to give honest grades because the most important part fo my evaluation and continued employment was the students’ course evaluation. To most students easy grading and easy course requirements are the most important factors in their evaluation of a professor and his/her course. How much they learn is secondary at best. In addition to giving easy exam questions and generously curved grading, there are other less obvious ways to inflate. For example, at one university, where most of my graduate students had poor writing skills, I eliminated essay tests and research papers. (How could grad students have weak writing skills? High school and undergraduate teachers often eliminate written work or give good grades for poor writing.) At another university, where I served on many doctoral dissertation committees, I signed “PASS” on some oral dissertation defenses, even though the work was obviously sub-standard. This was because I was sometimes the only untenured person on the committee. The others, who claimed that they found nothing wrong with the student’s work, were all tenured and would be voting for or against my tenure in the future. You can see more extensive thoughts on the issue of grade inflation at gradeinflation.blogspot.com

    • Ray Carney

      Thanks Stephen for your (unusual but much appreciated) candor about the double-bind that professors are put in by their universities. I can confirm everything you say. I am a tenured full professor at Boston University and see the situation you are describing everywhere in my own school, with the full knowledge and support of the administration. Grades have become meaningless and completely unhelpful to students (who can’t discern what they are really good or not good at)–and rather than controlling the problem, senior administrators (at the President’s and Provost’s levels) at my own university send the faculty memos about increasing “student retention” to keep the tuition dollars coming in, to fail no one out, and graduate everyone so that happy “customers”can be converted into happy alumni givers. Though there’s lots of denial and avoidance of the hard truth, it’s all ultimately about the money. The goal is to keep enrollments and tuition income up. I have my own comment further down on this page, and have posted several different essays on this subject (and the more general subject of administrative shortsightedness and the intellectual corruption of a “sales-centered” model of university education) on my own blog: “Inside Boston University” (available at blogger.com).

      • T

        It’s funny you mention BU, because while I was a student there (2001-2005), I experienced active grade deflation. One of the COM classes I took – history and principles of journalism – was one of my few solid A’s in college. Almost all of us that semester got A’s (I think the class average was a 93). Near the end of the term, our professor actually said that the administration was coming down on him for making the class “too easy.”

        A friend took it a few years later; class average? 76.

      • joe

        I completely agree with you. Education has been corrupted by a “sales-centered” model. I have taught adjunct for 20 years at a technical college. Administration is not supportive to faculty when students complain and basically see it as our problem to fix. Each time it lands on an assc. dean’s desk there is more pressure on us to cave in to the student’s demands. Last spring I had a student who did not take some of her exams and did not even show during the day when I gave students who needed them, make-up exams. That day was not convenient for her and thought I should accommodate her schedule. In any event she insisted I give her at least a “C” and not the failed grade I had given her. When I refused, the assc. dean contacted me and urged me to meet with the student. It was during the summer and I was out of town. When I returned I heard nothing from the dean nor the student. Later I found out he had changed her failed grade to a “C” to accommodate the student. Now envision this student telling her friends to complain loudly and you get what you want. This, in turn, increases the cycle of grade inflation.

        • Robin

          I just went through a similar situation at the community college where I teach. The student didn’t show up for the final, lied about her reason for missing it, and after I refused to give her the make-up she went to the associate dean, who supported her in an appeal against me. The case is much more complicated than I feel like rehashing, but needless to say, I am now being punished while the student has been let off scot-free–this despite the fact that I uncovered incontrovertible evidence that she had lied. And the dean will no doubt give her an A for the class . . .

    • NotYourAverageJoe

      @Stephen – You should really think twice about giving away easy grades. Giving high marks when undeserved only fuels a bigger problem – especially when these graduates join the workforce. A colleague of mine who was hiring in the Neurosciences Department of a major university nearby, recently stated that he felt the applicant pool overall looked good on paper, but when it came down to the interview and real life situations, were not at all prepared for the job. I myself was a straight A student through high school, and it wasn’t until I got to college that I found courses that really challenged me and would get the occasional B or C, depending on my level of interest and other parameters.

      • PMinMA

        It’s not that simple. Each teacher is part of the system, and if one teacher grades harder than everyone else, s/he is hurting the chances of those students to move ahead. Grade inflation is a systemic problem and rogues only complicate the picture, they do not solve the problem — unless they are so persuasive that others follow their lead. But that is not a likely scenario.

  • Lizzy

    Does Harvard give out grades of B, C, D and F? Does no one actually receive those less than perfect scores? “The most frequently given grade” still doesn’t tell us what percentage of grades are A’s. Are 70% of the grades A’s or is it 22% no way to know from this story.

  • jh1623

    As a graduate student at Harvard I can tell you that I work incredibly hard in my classes. Have I earned the grades I have received here? I’d like to think so, especially given the amount of time and effort I have put into them, but I also know that other students in my classes have received the same grade that I have for different qualities of work. I would welcome the feedback that Professor Mansfield gives his students. Though it may be difficult to get that type of feedback it would provide valuable information on where I could improve myself, which is the reason I am in school in the first place.

    • Robert Thomas

      Picking on Harvard is easy. I plead guilty. I might have resisted the descent into cheap snarkiness if it hadn’t been for Professor Mansfield’s smug, giggly, self-satisfied air of moral superiority. Alas, I haven’t the character.

    • it_disqus

      The real reason for the grade inflation at Harvard is because mommy and daddy will not continue to write the checks if the over privileged kids don’t make good grades.

      • jh1623

        Might be true for some, but I pay for every cent of my education myself.

        • it_disqus

          Really? No one goes to Harvard without some financial help. You pay 100%? No Grants? No scholarships? No waivers from the school?

  • J__o__h__n

    Stop hiring Harvard grads or admitting them to grad schools.

  • Cygnet

    My own experience teaching and administering is that conservatives cared the least about grade inflation or about qualitiy in their teaching. They didn’t believe in the transformative power of education, nor did they really want to see the poor rise on the ladder to threaten their lofty intellectual or economic positions. Like many conservatives, Professor Mansfield doesn’t seem to value his students’ assessment of his teaching. Hence, I’d wager he can rationalize failing to prepare new materials for his students, help them on their essays, or spend time with them in office hours and outside of class.

  • Nick

    I am a 4th year Economics student and I was very interested in your grade inflation piece, and wanted to say I have had professors who give out A’s through tons of extra credit and lack of grade competition. This has degraded my drive and competitiveness and made less hard working students into equivalents of those who spend a lot of time and effort on their education and career.

  • Sam

    I am a Midwestern community college professor who has railed diligently
    against this phenomenon my entire career, for the most part in vain. But
    while I agree with Mansfield about the travesty of grade inflation, I must
    take issue with his assumption that liberal professors are more to
    blame than conservatives. I am one of the more liberal
    voices at my institution, and have an equal reputation as one of the
    strictest graders. There is no inextricable link between liberal
    political views and beliefs that students must be coddled and protected
    from the stress of failure and not receiving perfect
    scores. I and many of my liberal colleagues are just as capable of and
    committed to demanding rigor and maintaining standards as are the
    staunchest conservatives.

    • BNHE

      If you’re a professor you should know how little anecdotes account for.

  • Alan

    i teach at the University of California and have done so for over 20 years. While much of what Professor Mansfield states is true about grade inflation, he misses one critical point – objective standards. My students can earn 200 points for the class, divided among three assignmnets (2 tests and a comparative essay) broken into increments. 90% (180 points) is an A, 80% a B and so on. If al my students show me that they have grasped what i wish them to understand, they can all get A’s. Or none can. In my mind, i have objective criteria for each element. Yes, some might do better, but grading on a curve is just as unfair, as a particular student’s grade is related to who else takes the class in a particular semester. And contray to much handwringing, my students have continualy improved over the years. I provide more information whcih means they must know more to reach the 90%.

    • BNHE

      Tests are objectively too easy if more than 20% of students are getting an A grade.

      • Expanded_Consciousness

        False. There is nothing objective about a 20% arbitrary quota for As.

  • Will Abdu

    I think I can speak to this topic from the other side – a student at a school that DEFLATED grades. I was a Biology major at Boston University. There has been research done on the easiest and hardest schools to get an A at: http://www.cbsnews.com/news/grade-inflation-colleges-with-the-easiest-and-hardest-grades/

    Our average GPA at BU was just around or below a 3.0. It was brutal. If you ask any higher-ed professionals, they will tell you there really ins’t much of a difference in incoming freshman at Harvard and many other elite colleges – but their grades will be different when they leave. Here is article from the NYT in 2006 about a student who transferred to many different schools and how his GPA changed: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/06/07/education/07education.html?_r=0

    My experience: I was above the average in almost all of my courses, but graduated with a GPA around a 3.0. So, how do my grades look when applying to medical school compared to students who have a 4.0 but were actually average-ish from any one of a thousand other schools out there? not good. It took me four years and more tuition money for graduate school before I was accepted into medical school. I hear stories all the time about students who had 4.0 GPAs and then terrible MCAT scores (Medical College Admission Test) where as I and many of my friends at BU had the opposite – top 15% MCAT scores and 3.0 or below GPAs. In the end, these colleges give out lots of As (and its not just Harvard, most schools do this now) and the honest grades become penalties.

    Finally here is my schools (BU’s) response to grading and how their grades my penalize their students in the future because they give honest grades. http://www.bu.edu/com/co201mag/profiles/whatsana.html

    I hope this article and future news sources will help to point out the massive discrepancies in higher education.

  • Steve Perreira

    “My, how the times have changed,” how apt when applied to University Grade Point Inflation. Who’d of thunk Harvard would be a self-inflicted victim? Professor Harvey Mansfield, who is enslaved under this regime, has at least partially unshackled and fully ungagged himself. Prof. Mansfield shocks the politically correct masses by telling how better grades are a dis-service to students.

    Here’s a point of reference younger listeners may appreciate. In the late 1970′s I graduated from high school where grade point inflation was well under way. I remember a star senior student sobbing and wailing in public when he got a B in History, ruining his perfect 4.0 grade point average. Ever higher GPA goals DID stress him out as Prof. Mansfield says.

    After a 4 yr. stint in the US Air Force, I enrolled in a local community college where old school professors prevailed. I studied diligently towards an AS (Associate of Science, 2 year degree) in Electrical Engineering. Of the 15 students in my class, only one other student and I got A’s in 3 physics courses. That was the norm in all the science and math classes back then. I graduated as the Valedictorian from Merced Community College in 1984 with a 3.8 grade point average. There were NO straight A students among hundreds of graduates.

    Then I transferred to California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo (a.k.a. Cal Poly). Here the competition was tougher because Cal Poly had very high admissions standards. Getting a B was a measure of very good achievement. Grades were always posted for all to see, sans the names of the students. Frequently I saw charts where half the grades were F’s. One or two A’s in a class of 35 was the norm. Grading scales used a Bell Curve distribution where a C represents the norm – an average grade – as it was meant to be. I earned mostly B’s & C’s.

    When I graduated in the 1980′s, employers inquired about grade point average. Now-a-days the only way for an employer to know whether or not graduates are a ‘cut above’ is to test them independently. Grade point average, once a good measure of achievement, is now entirely meaningless.

    On a related matter, consider how testing was done back then. Our tests were not written with the intention of 90% and up being an A, 80% = B, 70% = C, etc. In engineering coursework, tests were prepared such that the best student might get 70% to 80% right, average was 40% to 50%. There were poor students who got zeroes – they were kicked out of school. The purpose was to really challenge the students and separate them by their true ability.

    Here is an interesting epilogue: About 10 years ago I took a few architecture courses at Cabrillo community college near Santa Cruz. I happened to observed the final project presentations for another architecture class. For the grade, the students showed an entire semester’s work – that being a detailed 3D, computer aided rendering of a Home design project, including virtual reality walk-through. The presentations varied from unacceptably poor work to supremely accomplished, with only two outstanding presentations out of 15. At the end of the presentations, the instructor said (paraphrasing), “Well, it’s just so hard to grade all these wonderful projects, so I just have to say, everyone who made a presentation gets an A.” I watched one of the outstanding students storm out of the classroom, clearly incensed. This young man had put hundreds of hours into his photo realistic drawings and 3D renderings of a classic Santa Cruz Victorian. He got the same grade as the clearly incompetent student, who, with but a few hours of effort, drew up a Barn with egregious errors such as posts oddly projecting through the roof. They both got A’s, but one clearly deserved an F. That’s the kind of world we live in today. It’s a kick in the teeth to good students and a disgrace to our nation.

    Thank you for airing Professor Mansfield’s alarming story. Our nation is failing in education in so many ways at apparently every level. GPA inflation is but the tip of the iceberg. Next you ought to do an article on cheating at the university level. Even at Cal Poly in the 1980′s it was out of control. Cheating by other students very negatively affected my GPA. Where GPA inflation is the tip of the iceberg, under the surface cheating on exams, homework, laboratory reports, and term papers goes virtually unreported in the press and unfettered on campus. Sadly, I observed that most university students cheat. I didn’t; I’m proud of my C’s & B’s – I earned them! In my career, I proved my grades meant something with industry recognized accomplishments including top award winning research papers, and several inventions put to practice. Who’d of thunk a B average student could do those kinds of things?

    • sasc1

      Really well stated steve. My daughters college is militantly anti-grade inflation, and has a honor code that is heavily enforced. All students sign on for this, and all work hard and get the grades they deserve. Focus on grades and discussion of grades is discouraged, what they encourage is talk about the class and its topics. She is at Bryn Mawr, and takes many classes at Haverford, which is also anti grade inflation and honor code. I have another who is a freshman at Villanova, and so far it seems like they are tough graders there, but we will have to wait and see how it really plays out. I am grateful for my daughters education and the people at her school who are willing to make the “hard” choice about actually giving honest grades and putting education before grades. When she graduates this spring her AB will be hers, with grades earned by hard work and honesty. I wish all students could get this, but sadly we live in an era where mom and dad say I am the greatest, and if I don’t get an A then they start the bullying of the teachers. Everyones a winner…. it always makes me crazy, trophies for everyone!

      • Steve Perreira

        Dear Sacs1: Thanks for telling about some schools that keep grading standards that make sense. With my daughter, it took me much time and anguish to purge from her mindset that everything she did was just wonderful and perfect (she didn’t grow up with me, so I got a late start, in her teens). I find that people who are less cock-sure are more capable of retrospective, contemplation, correction, and improvement. These are traits of the truly productive in a quality way. Thanks again Sacs1, good luck to your girls! -Steve-

  • Leum Reb

    Another point I wanted to make was in regard to the suggestion that Harvard students, being accustomed to receiving high grades, would suffer mental anguish were they to be given lower marks. I did my undergraduate degree at a private school that is routinely ranked among the very best small colleges in the US. Just like the students at Harvard, my classmates and I were almost all at the top of our high school classes. And I agree — getting grades significantly lower than what I was used to, and no longer being among the best students in *any* of my courses, was indeed difficult. But you know what? I dealt with it. In fact, I look back with some sense of pride at the fact that I was able to pass classes that were far outside my stronger academic areas; I learned how to learn these subjects. That accomplishment, every bit as much as the higher grades I received in my major, etc., made me feel that I had received a good education.

  • Ruby Jung

    I had a friend who taught at a state university. He graded according to his conscience until the administration approached him and asked him to “ease up” on his students because they were worried about “retention.” There’s another source of grade inflation for you.

  • Evac

    Good topic, ruined by Robin Young’s attempt to make it a political issue. I am also a university professor and I see grade inflation as a problem at my institution (although not as great as it apparently is at Harvard). Dr. Mansfield was speaking about the problem in completely apolitical terms until the host decided to remind him (and hence inform the listeners) that he was a “conservative.” She even interjected that he wrote an opinion piece against gay marriage — what on Earth does that have to do with grade inflation?! Her snide comments at the story’s conclusion suggesting that “conservatives” care less about educational reform than do “liberals” pretty much destroyed what was left of the original story. Why must partisan politics be brought into everything? Here is an issue, grade inflation, that should be (and I believe is) a concern to all in the academic community, and instead of looking at it seriously, the host decides to make puerile political statements about her guest.

    • Robert Thomas

      It’s impossible for Harvey Mansfield to speak apolitically; if there was snideness, it was Mansfield’s response to Ms. Young’s somewhat clumsy question whether Mansfield’s political views marginalize his complaints of administrative impropriety. Given Mansfield’s well-known politico-philosophical sclerosis, it’s not an unreasonable line of question.

    • Eric McDowell

      Well-said, Evac. I certainly agree with you, too. But sadly, it’s just NPR being NPR. . .

  • nkb

    I wholeheartedly concur with this assessment. I left academia in part because I simply could not stand the hypocrisy anymore. I was overtly told that I needed to be easier on students, and that I shouldn’t be so exacting about papers because “that’s a English department’s job” – it was infuriating. As a teaching assistant in grad school I refused to pass a student whose work was incomplete and terrible at best. The professor/administration got a mouthful from the parents and the grade was changed behind my back.

    Perhaps most annoying however were my colleagues. one time I kicked out my entire class, less four people, because they were the only ones who did the reading. More than one said, “ahh I wish I could do that” and “I’ve dreamed of doing that a thousand times” – then why don’t you?! No one is stopping you. You’re tenured; I’m not. What in the world do you have to lose? It’s odd to see that colleagues respect you for being tough, but then lack the nerve to hold students accountable themselves.

    It’s a big old mess across the board.

    • nkb

      “AN English department’s job”…before the backlash begins.

  • sasc1

    My daughter is a student at Bryn Mawr,a college that has been actively anti grade inflation for many,many years. The average gpa at BMC is around a 2.8-3.2 . We have been told that many colleges will tack on a whole point to bring their gpa in line with other kids who are applying to grad schools. The grades my daughter receives are truly hers, the result of her hard work. Haverford has also been doing the same grading. Read what they say on their sites. We have raised a generation of kids who believe an A is what they are due. Just look back a generation of two and you will see that an A was sort of rare, as it should be, but we have told our children they are perfect, wonderful and deserving of the world and so we give them a’s.

  • Barry

    I am also a professor, of biology, in the mid-Atlantic. We have had similar issues at our university, but not so much in the sciences (our College of Science is composed of five departments), in the nursing school, in music and the arts, and a select few other departments. It seems that the lack of rigor in other departments is devaluing the entire degree earned from our university. Nonetheless, we are establishing a name for rigor in these other fields where students must earn those better grades; a B from us in, e.g., music theory means more than an A in the same field from some other places. All that being said, there is a backlash of entitlement from our students who do not earn As in our classes; they believe they came to class, so they deserve (not EARN) high grades. And the real proof is in our outstanding graduates, who go on to excellent careers where those high marks show their value.

  • vitaminC

    Let’s face it: most of the college teaching in America isn’t done by tenured Harvard professors, but by the overworked, grotesquely underpaid adjuncts whose labor pays for the bloated salaries of senior administrators and star profs. When you have no departmental support, no spare time to invest in students (advising, tutoring, and such), and no job security, the last thing you want to do is bring on a stream of complaining children and bad evaluations. These can get you fired. Hence, grade inflation.

  • Expanded_Consciousness

    Competition to be admitted into Harvard has increased over the years. The admits are more and more extremely capable top students who work extremely hard to produce top work. There is no reason to downgrade A-level work done by most Harvard students for trivial reasons (a B for a misplaced comma, a C for two misplaced commas). A Harvard student applying to PhD programs should not be saddled with a 3.0 GPA when they are more capable than 4.0 state university students. Harvard students are not competing against other Harvard students. They are earning As for having mastered the material at an undergraduate level. Arbitrarily and artificially mandating that a maximum of 25% A grades be allowed per class does nobody no good. Especially when you often have extremely small class sizes at Harvard (classes with six students). This article and the comments beneath are more about Harvard jealous than anything else.

    • john02472

      “A ‘C’, a failure to fully master the concepts.” That statement alone speaks volumes. I thought a C would demonstrate a satisfactory grasp of the concepts. How did a grade of C become an indication of failure? And if that’s the case, what do the grades of D and F betoken?

      I am a Harvard graduate and a professor. For me, “mastery of the concepts” never constitutes the criterion for an A grade. First of all, if you haven’t mastered the concepts, you fail –– with an F. If you have mastered the concepts, it depends on HOW you demonstrated that mastery, in comparison to all other students who completed the assignment. When I read papers and exams, the best students emerges, and it’s always a treat to see that. I grade all other students largely according to the standard set by the best student. That’s why when grading exams in particular, after the excellent student emerges, I have to return to the exams I’ve already read. When the excellent student emerges, the others fall into place and earn grades of B, C, D, and F.

      Sometimes no one earns an A, because no one has excelled. If you earn an 84 out of 100 on an exam, that’s a B, even if 84 was the highest grade. To do otherwise is to apply the “curve” that the writer abhors.

      You don’t need a curve to distribute grades in some preordained fashion.
      You just need to keep the dictionary definitions of “excellent,” “good,” “satisfactory,” “unsatisfactory,” and “failing” front and center in your thinking.

      There’s a difference between receiving high scores on standardized tests and earning high grades in academic courses. I’m not saying those achievements are unrelated. What I am saying is that they’re different achievements.

      • dms1813

        The point to which you are responding was really about the notion that letter grades should be absolute with regard to what’s expected of an undergraduate, rather than relative to the talent pool in any one particular classroom. That seems pretty fair to me. Why would we want a group of our nation’s future leaders who just made it through an incredibly rigorous process to then spend the next 4 years seeing each other as competition in a zero-sum game? When instead, we could set them up to see each other as incredibly talented colleagues from whom they can learn – as a complement to what they’re learning together in the classroom.

        As a teacher, your job should be to make clear where the bar for an A is set, and then award that A to every student who clears that bar. Set it as high as you like (and if your argument was that Harvard students should be held to a higher standard, I could support that, as long as the criteria for an A were clear from the get-go and not made up in response to the professors perception of any particular class’ talent). But there’s no need to turn an A into the conch in an undergraduate-themed Lord of the Flies.

        • john02472

          In the classes I teach, grades of A and A-minus are few and far between. Students earn A grades because of the outstanding quality of the work they submit. It goes without saying that those of their classmates who perform at a lower standard automatically receive lower grades, because I compare their performance to that of the few outstanding students. That seems to me uncontroversial. To whom else should I compare them?

          There’s no platonic exam response or paper out there, somewhere.

          The students’ responses guide how I grade them as a group. Why in the world should it to be otherwise? That said, sometimes no one gets a A, because no one is outstanding. A student can surpass all other students on one or another assignment and still receive, say, a B-plus because of outright errors, logical inconsistencies, incomplete or faulty analysis, lapses in written expression, or other objective shortcomings. (By the way, one thing I do make clear on syllabi is that misspelling, solecisms, faulty sentence structure, erroneous or poor word choice, and similar technical faults naturally diminish the quality of the PAPERS they submit.)

          I do not –– cannot, never have, and never will –– set “a bar for an A,” and I must stress that it is not my “job” to do any such instrumental thing. I cannot tell students what is necessary to earn any grade, because I can only assess students’ work after receiving and evaluating it according to both comparative and objective criteria.

          • dms1813

            It looks like we disagree on something pretty fundamental so I don’t know how much longer it will make sense to discuss this. To be clear, I’m disagreeing with your position that grading should include any comparative component. A students’ chances of success in a particular class shouldn’t hinge on who else happens to be in the class that semester. In such a class, it would seem necessary for the professor to attach some sort of asterisked note to each student’s transcript saying “FYI, Spring 2013 was a particularly bright group, as opposed to those dolts I had in Fall 2012, so please consider a B in Spring ’13 to be comparable to an A in Fall 2012.” I know that you note sometimes no one gets an A, but the fact that you’re including a comparative element still makes it seem pretty likely that the above could be necessary to help graduate schools or other interested parties accurately assess a student’s performance.

            I am also saying – emphatically – that it is absolutely your job as an instructor (as it was mine when I was leading a classroom) to make plain to your students what your standards are, and then do what you can to help your students master the material well enough to meet or even exceed those standards. Setting up a classroom that way allows students to not only learn from you, but also from each other as they see their peers as collaborators working towards the task of mastering the subject at hand. Setting up a class in the way you describe inevitably leads to a particularly unhealthy kind of competition, wherein at best students will isolate themselves from one another and at worst will proactively try to undermine one another.

            Finally, since you note that “objective criteria” are something you currently use in grading students’ work, I don’t at all understand why you wouldn’t be clear on where the bar for an A is set from the get go. Saying you can only assess students’ work after receiving it is of course a tautology, but it is a particularly insipid and insidious one in this case. Are you not assigning students to deliver a particular kind of work to you on a particular set of problems or written topic, according to particular requirements (format, length, deadline, etc)? If so, you must have some idea as to what kind of response would be impressive, right? Why, then, can you not give your students insight into your grading criteria in advance – no matter how stringent they may be – so that those with the ambition, work ethic, and talent to earn an A can do so? Frankly, it seems a bit like you might be one of those teachers that actually enjoys handing out low marks.

          • john02472

            A student can be successful in a class and receive a grade other than A. One of the truly baleful effects of grade inflation is that students increasingly perceive that the only grade worth having is an A. Prof. Mansfield, for all his problems, has it exactly right when he says: “When good grades are easy, people don’t become less concerned with grades, rather they become more concerned. Now in order to get into a good graduate school … you need to have a near perfect record, and that does induce more stress. You can’t find a student who can take a C in stride anymore.”

            I don’t understand the logical connection between the third and fourth sentences of the first paragraph of your most recent post. In the former, you invoke a class I’m theoretically teaching in a given semester; in the latter, you bring up (who knows why) classes I taught to different students in previous semesters. I can’t (and, in any case, wouldn’t) grade today’s students in comparison to any students whom I taught in the past, because I don’t have the written work of the latter group in front of me.

            You write: “A students’ [sic; student's] chances of success in a particular class shouldn’t hinge on who else happens to be in the class that semester.” That bizarre assertion does not correspond to any classroom experience I’ve either had directly or heard about. You have failed (or refuse) to understand something fundamental: because they are not interchangeable, grades by their nature are comparative. For confirmation of this obvious fact, look at the language that defines the grading scale in any college catalog.

            Another serious problem with you point of view is that professors actually don’t (or certainly shouldn’t) “set grading criteria.” The criteria that determine what constitutes an A, a B, and so on, are set out in the language that defines the grading scale at a given college or university. All professors should be reading from that page and no other, such that an A in any course betokens an equivalent level of achievement.

            You misuse the word tautology, which means “to say something twice in different words.” I did no such thing. (In the same sentence, you also misuse the word “insipid.”) That said, it is absolutely not a contradiction to say that the best responses come from the students themselves AND that all students’ responses are judged according to objective criteria. Among other things, objective criteria turn on whether students correctly (not incorrectly) answer the questions, remember and bring to bear pertinent (not irrelevant) details, display that they have understood (not misunderstood) the material, and so on There is nothing contradictory, arbitrary, or mysterious about that.

            Before reading papers or exams, I have no idea “what kind of response would be impressive.” As I wrote, “there’s no platonic exam response or paper out there, somewhere.” I come to each set of exams and papers with an open mind, although it goes without saying that what students write must be objectively correct.

            It is, emphatically, not my job to tell students, in advance, what they “need” to do in order to earn one or another grade in a course. I enumerate the activities they are required to perform in order to pass the course, although merely performing those activities does not guarantee a passing (or any other) grade. If students violate the criteria I set for “format, length, [or] deadline,” their grades will suffer. The first two impose a uniform –– nota bene comparative –– standard, the third is an administrative issue. But, for goodness’ sake, adhering to “format, length, [and] deadline” doesn’t make a paper “impressive.”

  • Mark Yablon

    Recent articles on grade inflation are eye opening. It would be interesting to research the motivation, if any, behind bestowing honors on 90% of Harvard College graduates (as former Harvard President Lawrence Summers was recently quoted), as well as colleges giving away so many A’s today. Of particular interest, would be the ramifications upon graduates of universities with abnormally high grades compared to those with grades from institutions that reflect reality.

    I graduated from Baylor University two decades ago. If I apply to law school today, I’ve been told the admissions process places equal weight on my old G.P.A. as it does on a newly minted undergraduate’s G.P.A. That’s akin to saying $250,000 in 1988 dollars has the same buying power as $250,000 in 2013 dollars. But it doesn’t. A 1988 dollar is significantly more valuable than a 2013 dollar.

    And the same concept holds true with grades. A 3.30 G.P.A. 25 years ago may equate to a 3.60 G.P.A. or higher today because of grade inflation. But the law school admissions process does not differentiate between old and new grades as evidenced by the heavy reliance on a law school’s grid that compiles applicants’ G.P.A. and LSAT performance.

    The lack of recognition of grade inflation favors the newest graduates who typically are in their early 20s. That leads to age discrimination, inadvertent or not, in law school admissions. And apparently undergraduate programs that hand out more A’s than statistically probable give their graduates an unfair advantage in law school admissions or career placement.

  • Mark Yablon

    Recent articles on grade inflation are eye opening. It would be interesting to research the motivation, if any, behind bestowing honors on 90% of Harvard College graduates (as former Harvard President Lawrence Summers was recently quoted), as well as colleges giving away so many A’s today. Of particular interest, would be the ramifications upon graduates of universities with abnormally high grades compared to those with grades from institutions that reflect reality.

    I graduated from Baylor University two decades ago. If I apply to law school today, I’ve been told the admissions process places equal weight on my old G.P.A. as it does on a newly minted undergraduate’s G.P.A. That’s akin to saying $250,000 in 1988 dollars has the same buying power as $250,000 in 2013 dollars. But it doesn’t. A 1988 dollar is significantly more valuable than a 2013 dollar.

    And the same concept holds true with grades. A 3.30 G.P.A. 25 years ago may equate to a 3.60 G.P.A. or higher today because of grade inflation. But the law school admissions process does not differentiate between old and new grades as evidenced by the heavy reliance on a law school’s grid that compiles applicants’ G.P.A. and LSAT performance.

    The lack of recognition of grade inflation favors the newest graduates who typically are in their early 20s. That leads to age discrimination, inadvertent or not, in law school admissions. And apparently undergraduate programs that hand out more A’s than statistically probable give their graduates an unfair advantage in law school admissions or career placement.

  • Ross Emmett

    Here is how we maintain an academic environment which both resists grade inflation and signals students about their academic success at James Madison College, Michigan State University. http://www.popecenter.org/commentaries/article.html?id=2243

  • Jessica

    My grades aren’t being inflated. They don’t think I need it, since I gets A’s and B’s. What my professors do is inflate everyone else’s grades, thereby making my grades less valuable.

  • jonathanpulliam

    “YOUNG: Well, and this is Harvard. Isn’t it possible that there are a lot of students there who deserve a straight A?”

    This question posed by Ms. Young is spot on. Harvey Mansfield’s response to it was at once flippant and incorrect. Of course it is possible that any given list of assigned tasks may be completed equally well by a highly motivated group of students or majority subset thereof. That “grading to a curve” is both arbitrary and capricious ought to be self-evident to ANYONE who considers themselves to be an educated person.

  • Janet Ruth Heller

    Grade inflation is an important topic in education. I am a liberal educator who also objects to grade inflation. I care deeply about my students’ success in life; however, I do not think that distorting their performance in my class will help them. They need a realistic view of their strengths and weaknesses as scholars. Also, I find that students work harder if I make it difficult to get an “A” or a “B.”
    I agree with other professors who have commented on this topic on this website that any educator who refuses to cooperate with grade inflation takes a big risk, especially anyone who does not have tenure. Students have given me terrible evaluations and complained to administrators because I refuse to inflate my grades. I have had students swear at me because I pointed out their sentence fragments and run-on sentences on a rough draft conference for a term paper. I’m an English professor, and teaching students how to write is part of my job.
    In my opinion, student evaluations have too much influence in decisions made about faculty members. Many students are immature and want to go through college as easily as possible, rather than improve their skills so that they have a productive career and contribute to our society.
    Thank you for airing a segment about this important issue. I hope that colleges and other educational institutions will re-think their use of student evaluations and avoid grade inflation.
    Best wishes!
    Janet Ruth Heller
    Portage, Michigan

Robin and Jeremy

Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

September 16 7 Comments

Kathy Gunst Explores Community Supported Agriculture

Kathy Gunst joins Cook's Illustrated executive food editor Keith Dresser at his CSA pickup and offers recipes for the seasonal CSA fare.

September 16 11 Comments

Remembering Jesse Winchester

Jimmy Buffett remembers his friend the late songwriter Jesse Winchester, whose posthumous album is being released today.

September 15 26 Comments

A Call To Reject Corporal Punishment As Part Of Black Culture

An incident of child abuse by an NFL player has raised questions about the use of corporal punishment as a form of discipline in the African-American community.

September 15 27 Comments

Would You Pay To Get Your Kid Into A Top College?

A San Francisco company charges parents for a consulting package based on the odds their student will get into a certain university, with prices up to a million dollars.