Paul L. Caron

Monday, January 27, 2020

The Decline And Fall Of Grade Deflation At Princeton

Following up on my previous post, Princeton and Wellesley May Re-inflate Grades:  The Princetonian, The Decline and Fall of Grade Deflation:

Princeton has little to show for its experiment in “grade deflation,” except inflating grades that continue to lag behind those of its peer institutions.  ...

[I]t's never been easier to get an A at Princeton. ... A- was the median grade in the 2018-2019 academic year. 55 percent of course grades were in the A-range. In 1998, they were 43 percent of course grade. ...

B-range grades comprised 34 percent, and the C-range comprised six percent. D’s were merely half a percent. A Princetonian’s chance of getting a F was one in a thousand. The remaining four percent went to “passes.” ...

As of last year, the college-wide GPA was 3.46. Yet using the average rate of inflation during 1985-2000, I projected that it would be approximately 3.63 today had deflation never occurred. That’s on par with Harvard’s 3.65 in 2016 and Yale’s 3.58 in 2012. Still, Princeton’s grades are inflating at roughly the same pace as they were in the late 1990s. ...

While deflation aimed to create “uniform grading standards” for academic departments, it didn’t affect them equally. 

PrincetonChronicle of Higher Education, The Real Problem With Grade Inflation:

I still would very much like us to go to the law schools, go to the employers, and find out how the grades are actually used. It would be extremely useful if we could convey more information to the students and to the faculty about what grades actually do in people's lives, before we give in and spend so much energy trying to get good grade-point averages.

UpdateThe Real Problem With Grade Inflation

Legal Ed News, Legal Education | Permalink


The easier route is for employers to require class rankings for each student. If a student has a 3.7 but is in the bottom 25% of the class, you know just how good that student really performed in law school.

Posted by: Chris | Feb 2, 2020 7:31:16 AM

@MM: regardless of your politics, a strict reliance on numerical rankings will invoke Goodhart's and Campbell's Laws. Period.

Posted by: Unemployed Northeastern | Feb 1, 2020 11:23:04 AM

Unemployed: "Is this the sort of 'meritocracy' that people who just want college and grad school admissions to be limited to grades and scores envision?"

No, it's the logical result of a decades long process of reducing objective academic standards, while the New Left students of the 1960s eventually became the system they once despised.

Posted by: MM | Jan 30, 2020 1:49:57 PM

Even the left recognizes the folly of unilateral disarmament :)

Until America warms up to actually trying to test skills and/or intelligence rather than obsessing over grades at expensively studying non-useful (and sometimes nonsensical) material, employers would do well to mentally re-base a hard science grade up not just half a point based on their class averages, but maybe a point or more considering the higher test scores of the people entering those majors. Plus what they learned might actually come in handy!

Posted by: Anand Desai | Jan 27, 2020 9:48:53 PM

Quote: I still would very much like us to go to the law schools, go to the employers, and find out how the grades are actually used....

Flatten out the top such that the average in the humanities is 3.6 and in engineering is just under 3.4 and the numbers become meaningless. Smart employers look for other measures of ability or just trust to luck.

For the record, I graduated in engineering from a state university in 1972. My 3.2 average was enough to place me in the top ten percent and get me into two engineering honor societies. I assume the engineering average was around 2.2, since most students got Cs. Then grades mattered. Now they don't.

Posted by: Mike Perry | Jan 27, 2020 8:24:43 AM

Is this the sort of "meritocracy" that people who just want college and grad school admissions to be limited to grades and scores envision? If you show up, you get an A minus?

Posted by: Unemployed Northeastern | Jan 27, 2020 7:27:37 AM

With regard to the perennial problem of grade inflation, which occurs when professors try to award higher-than-normal grades to attract students into their classes (poaching from fellow professors), or colleges seek to improve the job prospects of graduates by making sure that their students’ grades are, on the average, higher than other colleges:

All of this nonsense would end quickly if job interviewers required colleges to state each student's (very easily calculated) z-score [deviation above or below the average or mean] for each substantive class.

A ranking of 1.5 standard deviations above the mean is much better than a ranking of 0.7 standard deviations above the mean, regardless of what either is labeled under an ever-inflating letter grading system, or under a numeric grading system.

Another simple solution which I suggested to my colleagues who are obsessed with trying to get students the best possible grades, to boost their chances of landing a good job, goes something like this.

Perhaps we should consider a grading standard for all courses where grades range from a high of A++++ to a low of A, with a mean of A++. This way every graduate would have at least an A average. Indeed, we should not rest until our grading standards guarantee every student a grade point average in the top 10% of the class!

Posted by: LawProf John Banzhaf | Jan 27, 2020 6:45:24 AM