In Defense of Grade Inflation at Harvard

Credential-obsessed overachievers should focus on learning rather than beating out their classmates for a finite number of As. 
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Elsewhere on this site, Roberto A. Ferdman notes that the most frequently awarded grade at Harvard College is an A, while the median grade there is an A minus. "That ought to dispel any notion that Harvard is tough on its students," he wrote. "Grade inflation may be a victimless crime, but what is the point of having a range of grades if half of them are A- or higher?" I think I have an answer. 

Ivy League educational institutions attract a disproportionate share of grade-obsessed overachievers. These young people are extremely driven, aren't in need of external motivators to learn, but often react to the grading system by gaming it: that is to say, they engage in cut-throat competition with classmates rather than helping one another learn; they manipulate teachers; and they choose earning a higher grade rather than learning more when there is a tension between the two. Their compulsion to succeed as others define it and their sheepish failure to prioritize higher-order benefits with their time at college perhaps makes a grading system based on obvious inflation the best option available.

What's the cost of grade inflation?

A rigorous system of inflation-free grading might benefit any graduate schools or employers interested in using the transcripts of applicants while evaluating them. But Harvard College shouldn't tailor its grading system to fulfill their needs, and needn't worry about its students being overlooked regardless of their grading approach. Being admitted to Harvard and graduating is itself a strong signal.  

There's also the argument that grade inflation is unfair. Students who do exceptional work are given the very same "reward" as students who do mediocre work. But it's wrong to conceive of grades as the reward for acquiring more knowledge than other people. The reward is coming away with a better education. And when doing exceptional work doesn't result in being better educated, why would an institution dedicated to higher education want to reward that? 

As well, rigorous grading would permit us to determine who graduates at the head of the class. But given that students choose different majors and take different classes at different times with different instructors and varying commitments of variable intellectual value outside the classroom, can there be any doubt that class rank is itself highly arbitrary? What do we really lose if it goes away?

A couple years ago, when a Professor of English at Duke outsourced her grades to her students, Alan Jacobs, a college professor and occasional contributor here, raised the best objection. "I actually have a lot of sympathy for Davidson: she is, I think, genuinely trying to recover for her students an experience of actual learning that the grading system, and students’ obsession with it, systematically undermines," he wrote. "But it’s impossible to make the argument that these grades are legitimate as grades—as serious evaluations of the quality of student work. Students lack the knowledge, the training, the experience, and the motivation to evaluate their peers’ work responsibly and accurately. When Davidson sends those grades along to the Duke registrar’s office, she is collaborating with her students in 'gaming the system'—gaming it massively and wholly."

The question is whether "the system" of traditional collegiate grading has enough value left to make it worth conserving. At highly selective institutions filled with people who've all already demonstrated that they're perfectly capable of earning As in difficult academic classes, a strong case can be made that grades no longer have much value. Jacobs doesn't necessarily disagree. "To be sure, in one sense the system deserves to be gamed—it’s fundamentally broken—and what Davidson is doing is only slightly more extreme than what most professors, enablers of grade inflation, do every day," he wrote. "But the system needs to be faced and critiqued more straightforwardly, more honestly." And in the meantime?

Grade inflation isn't as honest as just doing away with grades and making all classes "pass" or "no pass." But it still probably better facilitates a focus on education than would having Ivy Leaguers compete in a system where the median grade is C, at least until we get around to straightforward, honest reforms. 

What about students who crave the assessment of their own work that non-inflated grades would provide if they were offered? In some bygone piece I can't locate, written by a college professor whose name I can't remember, this solution was proposed: two separate grades, one sent to the registrar, using the inflated grade currency, and the other given to the student in private, as their "real" grade, for purposes of actual assessment and personal fulfillment. Perhaps that would be the best method for professors at some schools to adopt, all things considered.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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