- The American Conservative - http://www.theamericanconservative.com -

More On Harvard Grade Inflation

Hey everybody, I’ve been traveling all day, and am just now in San Diego trying to get caught up. I received the following e-mail from a reader, a professor I know. He’s responding to this post about grade inflation at Harvard. [1] I thought it worth a post of its own. He has given me permission to post it:

I was a graduate student for several years in the very department featured in Sarah Ruden’s article. For the most part, I was happy there, and I maintain a very high degree of respect for the faculty, who are world-class scholars and generally wonderful human beings. In my judgment, which is based on close observation, they fully deserve their reputation for excellence in teaching and research. It would be a shame if people got the idea from Ruden’s article that one can’t receive a superb education in Classics there. Nevertheless:

I had several experiences like Ruden’s. Some of the cases involved grades that displeased entitled students. Once an unhappy student emailed me after a mediocre performance and said, after receiving a B-, “I always get A’s. This is the lowest grade I’ve ever gotten. What’s your problem?” Some cases involved outright plagiarism that I had caught, documented, and passed along to the professor who was officially “head of the course” (though as at other elite institutions, much of the teaching, especially at the introductory level, is done by grad students). Some cases even involved serial plagiarism. I was never told directly by a professor that these problems were my fault, though once or twice I thought it might have been subtly implied. I was told explicitly, in one case, that one of the offending plagiarizers was a member of a very important and very wealthy family in a foreign country (I had had no idea). The supervising professor did not link this fact to the student’s treatment and mentioned it incidentally, and I trusted the faculty member’s integrity, but I did wonder about the connection afterwards. The student in that case ultimately received a slap on the wrist, despite evidence that he had committed the same offence in other classes. The case was never brought before the administration, as I had urged; the reason that ought to be done (and the reason Harvard’s own policies recommend it) is that individual professors (or departments) are not equipped to assess a student’s larger pattern of behavior. The administration, however, can start a file and keep track of such things; they can impose an appropriate penalty on someone who persistently undermines the university’s commitment to rigor and academic integrity.

The grade inflation is insidious and horribly demoralizing for the grad students who grade. I was told on more than one occasion to “adjust” a student’s grade upward for reasons which seemed to me insufficiently grounded in a discussion of the actual work submitted. As I gained experience, I came to realize that this wasn’t so much an official policy of inflation as a widespread reluctance to “single out” bad work from the general herd. There was strong but unspoken pressure to assign a grade lower than a B- only for the most atrocious cases; and even then, grad students had to be ready strenuously to defend and document their decisions. When you are a young, insecure junior colleague in such an environment, learning how to teach for the first time, you feel the effect keenly: grading carefully and honestly is as likely to result in conflict and damage to your reputation as in approval from your senior mentors. When healthy incentives to that kind of grading have been removed, all that’s left is the individual grader’s personal conviction. I learned that if I wanted truly to improve my students’ work, I had to rely far more heavily on the only reliable routes available to me: written feedback and classroom discussions about common problems. Grades meant little.

After years of this—and I should confirm here what others have said, that this is not a one-department problem, but a general institutional disease—I had a hard time carrying on cheerfully with my work as a teacher. The classroom experience was wonderful, and the material never failed to stimulate. But the continual reminders that my judgment would be questioned at every turn if I tried to introduce a modicum of rigor into the grade scheme wore me down. In my final years I was compelled (by evidence I could not overlook) to raise more plagiarism cases. In one case the appropriate actions were taken on the admin level, and one professor in particular did stand by my judgment despite pretty transparent attempts at manipulation from the offending student. But by that point it was difficult not to be cynical about the larger picture, or the overall health of the institution. One case handled correctly did little to redress the memory of others that had gone in a different direction. I recall telling someone after one particularly frustrating day, “I can’t stand teaching here now. I’m under constant pressure to tell pleasing little lies, and I find it increasingly hard to rally my heart against it. If I stay here much longer, I soon won’t recognize myself as a teacher.”

I am now happily employed at an institution that takes plagiarism and mediocrity seriously and recognizes that once the rot sets in, it is incredibly difficult to restrain. The moral standard for academic work is enforced—not without mercy, but in the context of clear procedures and boundaries that aren’t just paper tigers. I tell my students in clear terms that if they plagiarize, they are not simply trying to game the system; they are lying to me. And that disposition of the heart runs completely contrary to everything the institution is trying to achieve. But I am convinced that that kind of unified institutional focus and faithfulness is only possible at a place where the faculty have some sense that they are all pulling together for a clear and transcendent common purpose—in my institution’s case, one that is rooted in the gospel of Christ and in the best of the Western tradition, and dedicated to the shaping of character (not merely the accumulation of knowledge and skill). Harvard’s Classics department is committed to clear and noble goals, too, but the larger institutional culture does it no favors. Recently, when Harvard’s president tried to articulate Harvard’s mission, it didn’t amount to much more than “diversity”. That’s not a mission. It’s a buzz word with the historical life-span and staying power of a gnat. Institutions worth the name stand on granite and don’t feel the wind.

UPDATE: A reader comments:

I teach at a well regarded private secondary school. This is not a problem exclusive to the college level.

There are simply no downward pressures on grades in any system that treats students as paying customers. The unspoken implicit understanding between administrators and educators that there is a standard in assessment and grading, a standard that holds sway on a moral ground, has simply eroded.

Let’s give a recent example that I endured this week: an AP student bombed her test so thoroughly that I had no evidence that she had any knowledge of the class material. She received an F on the test, bringing her overall score to a D.

In response, I had to respond to a constant chain of emails with the parents, attend a conference, meet with administration to discuss the grade, and ultimately cede an opportunity for a retake. This placed me in the crosshairs of my bosses and used hours of my desparately needed planning time.

At no point in all of this did anyone say, “well, yeah. Look at the test. She bombed it. Them’s the ropes.” All it took was for the parents to quote the price of their yearly tuition and I got yanked around by the collar.

This is the system, and it works for the paying customer. I still love my job, I still teach my ass off, and I think I’m doing well by my students. But anyone who thinks that the grades on a transcript, at any level, mean anything is living in a bygone past.

42 Comments (Open | Close)

42 Comments To "More On Harvard Grade Inflation"

#1 Comment By Margaret On September 21, 2017 @ 7:45 pm

Well stated! Thank you for posting this and many thanks to the professor who gave permission!

#2 Comment By Bookbread On September 21, 2017 @ 7:51 pm

I just finished David Nasaw’s The Patriarch: the Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy (2013).

It talks about Teddy getting caught cheating at Harvard; and the whole thing got swept under the rug; Teddy did do a two-year Navy stint, then returned to the Yard to finish his undergrad.

Was there every a golden age in Cambridge?

[2]

#3 Comment By Luke B On September 21, 2017 @ 7:58 pm

I teach at a well regarded private secondary school. This is not a problem exclusive to the college level.

There are simply no downward pressures on grades in any system that treats students as paying customers. The unspoken implicit understanding between administrators and educators that there is a standard in assessment and grading, a standard that holds sway on a moral ground, has simply eroded.

Let’s give a recent example that I endured this week: an AP student bombed her test so thoroughly that I had no evidence that she had any knowledge of the class material. She received an F on the test, bringing her overall score to a D.

In response, I had to respond to a constant chain of emails with the parents, attend a conference, meet with administration to discuss the grade, and ultimately cede an opportunity for a retake. This placed me in the crosshairs of my bosses and used hours of my desparately needed planning time.

At no point in all of this did anyone say, “well, yeah. Look at the test. She bombed it. Them’s the ropes.” All it took was for the parents to quote the price of their yearly tuition and I got yanked around by the collar.

This is the system, and it works for the paying customer. I still love my job, I still teach my ass off, and I think I’m doing well by my students. But anyone who thinks that the grades on a transcript, at any level, mean anything is living in a bygone past.

#4 Comment By James Hartwick On September 21, 2017 @ 8:09 pm

I want to teach where this guy teaches now.

As a teacher, here’s a few ways that I think grade inflation does damage:

(1) When it’s easy to get an A, it’s unfair to the students who could have gotten A’s even when the grading was hard. On the transcript, the excellent student got an A. But, on the transcript, the pretty good student got an A too. The grade inflation nullifies their competitive advantage, which I think is unfair.

(2) Grade inflation creates an old boys club (which would now include women, gays, and blacks, but is still an old boys club). If everybody gets A’s, how can employers or grad schools really know who are the good ones? They rely on references. But this sets up a situation where it’s the right word spoken in the right ear that gets you the job or entry in grad school, not how well you performed in class. That’s not meritocracy, that’s an old boys club.

(3) Grade inflation in high school increases the crazy emphasis on extracurriculars (including sports). The competition to get into the right college won’t go away. But if everybody gets A’s, then getting A’s is not good enough any more — it doesn’t distinguish you. So what do you have to do? You spend all your evenings and weekends playing sports and/or doing extracurriculars in order to bolster your resume in order to just have a chance at getting into Harvard.

I know grade inflation is a joke of an issue for most people. Perhaps that’s a good sign. Even as a teacher and academic sort of guy, I’m glad that in America a guy like Scott Walker can become governor without a college degree, as opposed to advanced degrees being so de rigeur that Vladimir Putin wrote a dissertation. (I can’t believe it’s any good.) But the flip side is that it is better for all of us if grades actually mean something. In other words, if C students get to run the world, they shouldn’t mind getting a few C’s.

#5 Comment By James Hartwick On September 21, 2017 @ 8:11 pm

The grade inflation nullifies their competitive advantage, which I think is unfair.
By “their” I meant “the excellent student’s.”

#6 Comment By Ferny On September 21, 2017 @ 8:23 pm

I’m the usual SJW in your comment box that you don’t allow to comment because I’m usually rude as hell – but this kind of stuff is endemic in large parts of the Ivy League and other top tier institutions – and it is solely a product of class privilege.

As a poor latino kid at Yale, the idea that I would challenge the grade that a professor gave me was something out of science fiction – I would never do that because obviously, I didn’t have the stature to challenge it (and at some meaningful level, I shoudn’t have that stature – I had done nothing to deserve it other than escaping a rural ghetto, but that’s not academia).

I remember vividly one course – the grade in the syllabus did not have an attendance consideration and after the fourth class, I stopped going except for moot court, exams and required sections because I was running a major conference. I made that choice. The professor gave me a C largely because of attendance – but I still felt no real means to challenge that grade, even if attendance had technically not been a part of the grade! (He confirmed to me that had my attendance been strong, I’d have an A from my work).

The idea of feeling comfortable with challenging a professor was not prevalent amongst the people usually protesting – and we all knew this.

#7 Comment By Mike W On September 21, 2017 @ 8:27 pm

At west point the instructors liked to mock harvard and other ivys for their grade inflation, which is well known. My graduating class at west point had a mean gpa of 2.9 or so. Cs were about as common as As. One instructor of mine commented when we had a test that got an average in the 70s, “Cs are supposed to mean average!” No grade inflation going on there.

#8 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On September 21, 2017 @ 9:53 pm

When I was small, we learned about “grading to the curve. This meant, essentially, that a certain small percentage of the class HAD to be designated as A students, an equal small percentage HAD to be failed, and the rest were B, C, or D based on where their score fell on the class curve. The largest fraction got Cs. They were “average.” The upper and lower grades were exceptionally good, or bad, to distinct degrees. So if everyone got over 90 percent right, some students who got over 90 percent would be failed.

This always seemed rather unfair. I was never quite sure if this was “the way it will be for you when you get to high school,” or the way it used to be until quite recently, so be grateful we don’t still do that, or a recitation of horrors from ancient history. C.S. Lewis in Surprised by Joy recalls that a Latin teacher told him he would have to be whipped if his grades didn’t improve. Just a matter of course.

Now, with that as background, students who haven’t actually learned the material should not be given grades indicating that they mastered it superbly. Its just not real. Is it any wonder that scholarship students who are the first in their family to attend college, feel that they are entitled to a good deal of pampering and privilege, when they see well-connected elites do this?

The solution of course is to remove the privileged status entirely, not to equalize it.

My father had a story about a student who asked “Why did I get a D in this class?” Dad’s succinct answer was “You earned it.”

#9 Comment By Clyde Schechter On September 21, 2017 @ 10:57 pm

In the end, grade inflation does not favor to the students in any case. It is an illusion.

When I started medical school in 1972, many of them had abolished grades, or gone to a minimal grading system of pass/fail or honors/pass/fail. It did feel nice to have less pressure from grades. And I had a lot of intrinsic motivation to learn the material anyway.

Fast forward to 1979 when as Chief Resident in internal medicine at a hospital, I was a member of the committee that reviewed applications from senior medical students looking for internships. In being oriented to that task, I learned that an occult grading system had developed. Every student had a letter of recommendation from his or her school’s dean. And in the bottom line, every student’s overall performance was characterized with one of the following code words: outstanding, excellent, very good, good, fair, and poor. (It’s been a long time now and I may have left one out or misstated one of them, but that’s the gist of it.) Nearly all medical schools used this exact terminology. There was one medical school that refused to do this and just stuck with reporting the pass/fail grades. (Did I mention that it is almost impossible to get a failing grade in medical school?) The committee’s stance on that was clear and simple: unless that student had done a rotation at our hospital, we had no way to know what quality of student they were, so we didn’t even bother to review those applications–they went straight into the file.

The use of an occult grading system is also unfair to the students. It was used behind our backs: we were never told about it. If a mistake had been made, there was no way to know and no way to inquire or appeal. Furthermore, it gave us no ongoing feedback about our progress, so if we did need to do something different, we never found out.

I do not know if Harvard and other schools with grade inflation have developed some occult evaluation system or not. But if they haven’t, sooner or later they will have to, in order to satisfy the legitimate demands of graduate and professional schools and employers for usable information about their graduates’ individual performances. And being secretly blackballed by a code word in a letter is, I think, far worse than getting a C.

At bottom, competition is not caused by grading. Competition necessarily exists when more people want something than can have it. If good metrics aren’t in use, then bad metrics will be found and used instead, to the detriment of all concerned.

#10 Comment By Fran Macadam On September 21, 2017 @ 11:37 pm

A nation addicted to lies and lying is not going to punish those who do so, if they can get away with it – and at the highest levels outside academia, that is the norm.

I guess our experiment now is to see if any of this really matters at all, using a thoroughly utilitarian argument – does lying work for what we want it to?

I had an epiphany a long time ago, when I found out it did not work as I had been convinced by my education that it would. I don’t think it’s going to work any better, even if those convinced of it are in Washington, Silicon Valley or Wall Street – it will just take longer, and the consequences pent up even more severe.

#11 Comment By Joachim On September 21, 2017 @ 11:51 pm

I’m greatly saddened and surprised to hear all this. It’s very different from what I experienced, but my college teaching experience was at a public university in a poor state. There were few, if any, students from politically/socially privileged backgrounds who could frighten the administration like this. We just had the usual SJW types who wanted to shut down the campus Chick-Fil-A and such.

#12 Comment By jsmith On September 22, 2017 @ 12:54 am

This is not a surprise at all. Harvard has been coasting on its reputation for 100 years, if not 200. Let’s hope no (literal) bridge builders are coming from this cesspit.

With respect to grade inflation, the writing was on the wall when one of the country’s oldest and best institutions of higher education changed from a strict A-B-C-D-F scale to plusses and minuses in the early 1990s. Harvard, like most of higher education, like Lake Woebegone…everyone is above average.

#13 Comment By Nelson On September 22, 2017 @ 1:22 am

Back in my day only football players got grades adjusted upwards.

Actually I don’t really like grades as an evaluation tool, and especially not grade point averages. I admire more the students who attempt hard classes and get Cs over the ones who stick to easy classes to get As.

#14 Comment By GR On September 22, 2017 @ 1:23 am

Money talks, no matter what the system.

I have a similar tale. I attended university in Australia, where legacy admissions are (as far as I know) non-existent. Here, the great majority of Australian students attend under aa govt-funded loan scheme, while a minority of Australian students (who didn’t make it in on merit) and a large number of international students pay a very significant premium to attend.

I was a demonstrator in my final year (Aus equivalent of a TA, I think?) and one of my jobs was marking one particular page of the end-of-semester exam (which constituted 85% of the mark). On my page, a particular international student scored 3 out of a possible 17 marks. Conversation around the marking table indicated he did similarly on the other pages. A fail (<50%) on thhe course mean that you couldn't do the next part of the course (computer science) in the next semester. Yet when next semester rolled around, there he was again.

I don't know whether this guy's language skills weren't up to it, or whether he just didn't understand the material, or whether he'd spent all year playing Warcraft in the spare computer lab. But he unambiguously, dramatically failed the course by a wide margin. I don't think I'd have seen any non-fee-paying student scoring in the ~20% range for a course and somehow having that bumped up to a pass…

#15 Comment By pj On September 22, 2017 @ 1:40 am

I’m sure someone has pointed this out Rod, but if you want some data to go with these anecdotes, there is an entire website dedicated to tracking grade inflation at universities: [3] Though I think their data on Harvard specifically is limited.

You should peruse it though if you are interested in this topic. Basically there have been two eras of grade inflation, the 1st was Vietnam, when grades rose rapidly. Then there was a pause for about a decade. Since the early 80s, we have been in a 2nd phase of slow grade inflation that hasn’t stopped that coincides with the “student as customer” model of education. There is not much difference between public and private universities and the Ivy League does not appear to be an outlier, though there are a few outlier universities. (e.g., there has been no grade inflation recently at BYU.) There is no evidence that grades are going up because student quality is going up, although that is an argument universities often make. Attempts to hold down grade inflation work if administrators emphasize it. For example, Princeton successfully held back grade inflation starting in 2005 when the president and faculty made it a priority. But when a new administration came in later, the policy was abandoned in 2014 and grades are going back up.

#16 Comment By Jmark On September 22, 2017 @ 1:54 am

In partial defense of the professors pressuring TAs to inflate grades, one should consider that this is somewhat of a collective action problem. In other words, it won’t work if just one professor decides to stand against the tide. Let’s say a professor decides to be a solitary hero against grade inflation, and grade according to a bygone era when average work meant a C, and slightly above average work a B-, solidly good work a B, etc… He wouldn’t single-handedly change the world and get everyone else to view a B- as above average work, therefore the students who did above average work in his class and got a B- would unfairly have a mark on their transcript that means well below average to everyone looking at it. It’d be like a lone employer taking a stand against monetary inflation by paying their employees 60 cents an hour, and insisting it should considered just as valuable as 60 cents was in 1913, when 60 cents had the buying power of $15.00 today.

#17 Comment By Carl Tuesday On September 22, 2017 @ 2:12 am

I’m curious if there are professors in an engineering program who read this blog. I can say that around roughly 2000-2010, it was my impression that in the higher end engineering programs (mine included), this hadn’t struck yet even as I witnessed it in an ivy league grad school outside of my engineering domain.

I pray that my fellow civil engineers aren’t able to bargain their way through finite element analysis or other courses that generally are the basis of “not having things fall down”, for example.

Although we didn’t have the grade inflation pressures, I definitely did see sometimes absurd cheating efforts perhaps as a result of knowing that the grade would be the grade.

#18 Comment By Michael On September 22, 2017 @ 2:24 am

I personally think the grading system used at most universities is outdated. Instead of grading students on one-time performance, why not grade on mastery? The goal of a college education is to help students achieve mastery in their subjects. Students should be shown where they fall short and given the opportunity to improve. See [4]

#19 Comment By Interguru On September 22, 2017 @ 2:29 am

Solution:
The students’ transcript should not only contain the grade but the mean grade for the class. The employer could then judge how meaningful the grade was. The GPA should also have a mean GPA too

#20 Comment By education realist On September 22, 2017 @ 2:47 am

An often lurking variable amidst the rise in cheating is the rise in the Asian population. Look at any major academic cheating scandal, high school or college, and 9 times out of 10 it’s Asian nationals, recent Asian immigrants, or kids of Asian immigrants.

At the college level, stats show that the bulk of plagiarism issues occur with international students, who are overwhelmingly from China, Korea, and India.

Reporters never mention this, but it’s usually hidden somewhere in the data.

The SAT and, to a lesser extent, the ACT have been under assault from organized plagiarism rings for several years. Then the kids come over here from China and cheat constantly in college.

The universities just want the money.

Cheating among Americans who aren’t 1 or 1.5 generation Asian isn’t particularly outrageous.

I wrote about this here: [5]

#21 Comment By yahtzee On September 22, 2017 @ 2:53 am

As someone who barely graduated high school, I have to shake my head at the people who are taking on insane amounts of non-dischargeable debt to attend what are basically the world’s most expensive babysitting services.

This afternoon my company had a keg mixer, and I was talking to a coworker who casually threw out that he started his career with over $100,000 in debt (two undergraduate degrees, and a master’s, all from an Ivy League school). As I poured him a beer, I pointed out that I got into our industry directly from high school, and we had ended up in the same situation: the same job responsibilities, same control over our project, and the same income. He was pretty good-humored about it, in the gallows sense.

#22 Comment By jamie On September 22, 2017 @ 3:03 am

My father used to teach for University of Phoenix and Capella University. He reported very similar experiences: students are clients, they’re paying for the education, the evaluations the students give the instructors are more important than the grades instructors give the students.

The for-profit institutions, particularly the Internet ones, are the most ridiculous, since they’re in the most competitive environment and students are free to shop their student loan and grant potential to whatever college will give them the best credential.

The US needs high-stakes testing.

#23 Comment By jamie On September 22, 2017 @ 3:09 am

I would add, I have no idea where this situation sits in any kind of broad trend. I graduated from high school, a public high school in the midwest, with a 3.8 GPA, but in the 81st percentile.

If the question is, how bad is “grade inflation,” then all that should matter is: what is the mean grade, what is the median, what is the standard deviation?

#24 Comment By Jeff Burton On September 22, 2017 @ 6:36 am

I’ve said this many times: each student is a six figure revenue stream. It pays to handle the livestock gently.

#25 Comment By KevinS On September 22, 2017 @ 7:53 am

I teach at a Big 10 university and find it interesting that the graduate student did not mention where the real grade inflation takes place…at the graduate level! In my undergraduate classes a sizable number students receive a C or lower. At the graduate level almost no ever gets lower than B (and few less than a B+). There are effectively three grades at the graduate level: A, A- and B+.

#26 Comment By just a prof On September 22, 2017 @ 8:11 am

Ferny–much like my experience as a WWC kid at Yale. Discussing readings with a prof was one thing, but complaining about grades would have been unimaginable. As you said, maybe in a science fiction story.

#27 Comment By mdc On September 22, 2017 @ 9:28 am

“I learned that if I wanted truly to improve my students’ work, I had to rely far more heavily on the only reliable routes available to me: written feedback and classroom discussions about common problems. Grades meant little.”

Sounds like a win for genuine education, or at least a bright silver lining.

#28 Comment By RR On September 22, 2017 @ 10:35 am

I graduated from Harvard 17 years ago, so my experience is a bit dated. I can’t speak about grade inflation today, but back in my time, the classes that were graded on a curve were centered around a B, and the average student worked pretty hard to get a B. By “pretty hard” I mean 15-20 hours a week spent on homework for classes in one’s major, and 8-10 hours a week on electives and core requirements. Compared to older people’s experience of curved centered on C, that indicates a bit of inflation, but not that bad—nearly all students admitted to Harvard could be A students at most state universities. And to compensate for possible grade inflation, one’s rank is also included on any transcript (more on that below).

I only became aware after I graduated that 10-15% of the students got admitted in part due being “legacy” (just as 10-15% of the students got admitted in part due to affirmative action, and another 10-15% of the students got admitted in part due to non-academic merits, such as excelling in sports or being music prodigies). I don’t have a problem with Harvard choosing some non-academic factors for admitting a fraction of its incoming freshmen, as long as most students are admitted on academic criteria. And people in those categories are generally about as bright and hard-working as everyone else–certainly all the jocks and minorities I knew there, and likely the legacies too (they weren’t conspicuous, so I couldn’t tell).

From my experience, STEM classes are very rigorous, and many bright students, even after working hard were only able to get C’s. This is an ego-crushing experience for students who cruised through high school getting A’s in AP classes. In some cases, this experience in deliberate “weed out” classes persuaded them to switch to an easier concentration (major).

Also, plagiarism is taken very seriously, even borderline cases result in suspension for 1 year, and needless to say, any assignment affected by plagiarism automatically gets a zero grade, as a rule. I suppose, as the testimony of TA’s was quoted there, some “exceptions” can be made for the offspring of prominent donors or politicians, and they only get a slap on the wrist, but I didn’t see any evidence of that. On the contrary, reading a comment just posted:

Teddy [Kennedy] getting caught cheating at Harvard; and the whole thing got swept under the rug; Teddy did do a two-year Navy stint …

RR: This seems to support the opposite: even the scion of a prominent senator is suspended for at least one year upon committing plagiarism

As far as grade inflation, Harvard has a 16 point GPA with 4 ranks, and the distributions circa 2000 were something like this (round numbers indicating an imprecise recollection):
– Rank I: A- or above, 20% of students
– Rank II: B to B+, 30% of students
– Rank III: B- to B, 30% of students
– Rank IV: C+ or below, 20% of students

Some professors were harsher than others with grades, in some cases unduly harsh; it never crossed my mind to challenge a grade, it was their prerogative on how to grade the class, I could take it or leave it. I worked hard and was Rank I for most of my time there; in senior year I took very challenging classes and worked even harder than before, but the difficulty of the classes forced me into Rank II. I could have chosen easier classes my senior year since I had already met the requirements for my major, but I (and the majority of my classmates I believe) were too ambitious to cruise through senior year.

Maybe I was not a typical Harvard student—I came from a family in the bottom quintile of income distribution, which is probably only true for 2% of Harvard’s class (compared to most students who came from a family in the top quintile). My family couldn’t afford to contribute much to my education costs, so I had a need-based scholarship covering 80% of the costs, with loans and work covering the rest. Out of the respect for the donor who paid for my education (never met him personally, but knew his name), as well as out of enlightened self-interest, I decided to make the most of my time there, primarily focusing on academics.

#29 Comment By Trin On September 22, 2017 @ 11:20 am

It really isn’t surprising, since this is exactly what the economic incentives of the current higher ed industry compel. A college degree is considered, culturally, as primarily an economic good, i.e. a credential that facilitates a stable and higher-paying career. As an economic good, then, the buyers of that good naturally and rationally desire to minimize its cost and maximize its value. That means investing the least possible effort for the highest possible return on effort. A “grade” is not considered as a measurement of knowledge or education, but rather as a component of the overall economic good of the credential. Higher grades = a more valuable final credential. Students therefore rationally wish to get high grades with minimal effort.

On the other side of the transaction, colleges are also business actors (yes, even nonprofit ones and state-funded public schools). They are competing with one another from the customer base of students. Like in any competitive industry, they can compete on price and/or on value. Competing on value means offering their students the most value on product, i.e. those high-grade low-effort credentials that students are trying to buy. This is easier for most colleges than competing on price, because it doesn’t cost the college any revenue to give out higher grades. And colleges have discovered that students are willing to pay very high prices for their degrees, especially if they don’t have to worry about expending too much effort or risking F’s.

It is also in the college’s self-interest to inflate grades because most of the metrics for colleges’ quality are tied to students’ retention and graduation rates. If a freshman gets a bunch of F’s and drops out after one year, that costs the college at least three years of revenue from that student, as well as lowering the metric of retention rate. If that same freshman gets B’s or C’s and stays in school and graduates, then everybody wins in the economic market. The student has successfully bought a credential, the college has successfully sold him one, and their retention rate stat goes up.

I don’t think this is mainly a class-based issue, because I see the exact same mechanism at work for poor inner-city kids at the public HBCU where I work as I do in this piece for Harvard. We probably just find it more surprising when we see it at Harvard, because we more clearly imagine the Ivy League as a place of high academic rigor.

I don’t think any of this is likely to change until the fundamental purpose of higher education is reimagined as something besides an economic good. And that’s not going to happen until students discover the diminishing value of a degree as a good in relation to the inflating cost, which is to say when the higher ed bubble pops. Maybe after that apocalypse, we’ll have a window to start thinking of higher education as an unnecessary luxury good again, like we did in the past.

#30 Comment By RR On September 22, 2017 @ 11:30 am

Clarification: I meant this figures for _each_ class, on reading/homework/labs, not counting attending lectures and sections:
15-20 hours a week spent on homework for classes in one’s major, especially STEM classes (contrary to other comments here, engineering is very rigorous at Harvard, though it is the 2nd best engineering school in Cambridge MA)
8-10 hours a week on electives and core requirements.

For instance, to use a well-known class as an example, the excellent “Justice” class by Michael Sandel ( [6] , this is a very well made series of videos that includes the Socratic method with student participation ). To get an A in that class, one would have to be first of all very intelligent and articulate; and second, read the assigned 2000 pages or so from the syllabus (this is a one semester, core requirement class). I put in a decent amount of effort (about 10 hours a week on homework, including reading about half of the assigned material), but I wasn’t able to do that class justice (pun intended), and I got a B on it, which is what I deserved. If I had more time (which I didn’t, because I had harder STEM classes and a part time job), I would have worked twice as hard, reading all the assigned materials and going though twice as many revisions for my essays, and perhaps got an A-. I don’t think I was brilliant and eloquent enough to get a straight A no matter how much time I put into it, only la crème de la crème (top 5% or so) of that class got straight A’s. I don’t know if that particular class was curved around a B, but that sounds about right. And it sounds fair too, given that an average Harvard student would still need to put in about 10 hours a week.

I suppose (speculating here, without any evidence), that it would also be possible to get a “gentleman’s C”, by spending only 5-6 hours a week on homework, and instead of reading the assigned materials, skimming Wikipedia/Cliff’s notes, and writing rushed essays every week. But missing most of the weekly essays/quizzes would certainly result in failure, even in a relatively easy class like Justice.

#31 Comment By Json On September 22, 2017 @ 11:38 am

I actually think a 3.8 – 4.0 is a red flag. It raises the likelihood that the student didn’t take any challenging courses or took any risks. If they had, they would have had some B’s and perhaps a couple of C’s. Sometimes curious and independent students don’t always follow the course outline strictly or jump through all the hoops, and can end up learning more although they end up with a B.

Also, some institutions differentiate between a grade and the same grade with a minus. An “A” calculates as 4.0, whereas an A- calculates as 3.7.

#32 Comment By Liam On September 22, 2017 @ 12:38 pm

“– Rank I: A- or above, 20% of students
– Rank II: B to B+, 30% of students
– Rank III: B- to B, 30% of students
– Rank IV: C+ or below, 20% of students”

Roughly consistent with my experience at HLS in the mid-80s. The top half/bottom half marker was between B and B+. And some professors deliberately use randomness in grading (no, not the hoary staircase legend, but examination ID numbers – Professor Duncan Kennedy used that to sort the clumps of people with the same point pre-grade – from his very lips to my ears – he did this to teach a lesson about randomness to HLS students).

#33 Comment By C. L. H. Daniels On September 22, 2017 @ 2:27 pm

I don’t remember much in the way of grade inflation from my Ivy League days, though I went to the one not mentioned in your previous post, Cornell. I suspect it wasn’t mentioned because it’s partly a SUNY school (3 out of its 7 constituent colleges are SUNY schools), which means it has a significant population of students from New York state who may not be as privileged as your typical Ivy Leaguer.

Then again, I was on a hard sciences track for two years there. I believe that grade inflation in those disciplines is probably… Limited, with perhaps a handful of exceptions (Computer Science grading for example can be at least partly subjective, and there is a lot of potential for plagiarism in that specific discipline). There is generally speaking no gray area whatsoever in math or most other sciences; either you have given the correct answer (of which there is almost always only one), or you haven’t. There’s no putting lipstick on that pig. Liberal arts disciplines on the other hand are full of bullshit, and the grading is almost fully subjective. As a grader, you can spin almost any grade you want to give on a paper or essay-based exam, for example, so if you want to make someone pass with sub par work, you can.

In summation, I worked my ass off for B’s for two years when I was in the hard sciences, and slacked off just as hard for the same grades when I switched over to a liberal arts track. Don’t despair for the sciences. Most of the privileged aren’t going that route anyway (too hard, and not remunerative enough); they’ll major in something soft, then go to grad school, then move on to whatever elite (and well paid) vocation awaits them in finance, the law, media or politics.

#34 Comment By Pat On September 22, 2017 @ 5:50 pm

“There are simply no downward pressures on grades in any system that treats students as paying customers. ”

There are, in some disciplines. If we let unprepared nursing students graduate they will be less likely to pass the NCLEX, and the NCLEX pass rate for every institution is made public to prospective students.

I consider myself very fortunate to be working in a field with this kind of external criteria for excellence. In such a field accurate evaluation and feedback are vital and, indeed, are part of what our ‘paying customers’ are paying for.

#35 Comment By Hound of Ulster On September 22, 2017 @ 8:45 pm

Upper class elites use institutions to further their own elite status under the guise of ‘meritocracy’?

In other news, water is wet.

How do you think people like Donald Trump and George W. Bush got their MBAs? Because they worked for them? Oh, my sweet summer child…

Agree to get rid of legacy admissions, and liberals would be more than willing to give up affirmative action admissions.

Obama said several times when asked that he thought his kids should not get the same special considerations that he did when applying for college.

#36 Comment By Dave On September 22, 2017 @ 10:38 pm

My experience having TA’d at a flagship State University. Most classes will have grade inflation, but depending on the professor it will be limited. Id say that it was fairly common in the courses I TA’d for most students to get a B (3.0). That said, there was a definite skewed curve toward the high end, that is I gave out a lot more A’s than C’s. I also tended to (at the professor of record’s suggestion) to grade generously. That is find reasons to give anstudent points rather than to take points away. I’ve also found that tenured professors who aren’t reliant on student evaluations are much more likely to grade “fairly”, where only a few outstanding candidates get an A. Overall the inflation tended to happen on the margins. A student who was 2-3% short of the next grade up would get that grade if they worked hard and attended class. Slackers were afforded no such courtesy.

I’ve also dealt a lot with students who complain that I graded their paper/test too harshly and have always had the prof back my decisions. Their way to weed out complainers was to say “well you can accept the TAs grade, or I will personally grade it based on how well I think you should have mastered the material I presented in my class” and I never had a student brace enough to try that option (which is all but guaranteed less points). If I made a mistake I’d happily give back points, but if they were just hunting for a few extra points and didn’t earn them they got nothing, and I’d generally find some other reason to take the points off somewhere else anyway.

Usual disclaimers: mostly entry level STEM courses

#37 Comment By James Hartwick On September 23, 2017 @ 8:15 pm

@Hound of Ulster
Agree to get rid of legacy admissions, and liberals would be more than willing to give up affirmative action admissions.

I don’t know if you meant it this way, but I think this, as written, implies that legacy admissions are a conservative “cause.” My experience is that thinking of legacy admissions as conservative is like thinking that Wall Street is on the side of the GOP. In my experience, legacy admissions are pretty bipartisan.

#38 Comment By connecticut farmer On September 24, 2017 @ 10:59 am

What’s the flunk out rate at Hahvahd? I’ve heard (but this is strictly hearsay) that while it’s fiendishly difficult to get into an Ivy school, no one actually “flunks out”. Instead, they leave, a la’ Billy Gates–usually out of boredom.

#39 Comment By Kenneth Schmidt On September 24, 2017 @ 11:59 pm

I know it might seem a terrible thought,but I am glad the Ivy League is falling apart. A degree from one of these places used to mean something. Now, the products of these colleges are a bunch of brainwashed Neo-Marxist automatons that can’t think their way out of a paper bag. The death of these institutions might mean the revival of Western Civilization.

#40 Comment By RR On September 25, 2017 @ 10:15 am

“What’s the flunk out rate at Hahvahd? ”

It is probably about the same as it was 17 years ago, somewhere between 1-2%.

As everywhere, about 1% of students there have some mental health issues that cause them to take a leave of absence for 1 year. Then some of them come back and graduate, some don’t.

The remainder (under 1%) who get put on academic probation are students coming from inner city schools (a valedictorian from a ghetto school will have a difficult time at any Ivy League school). This reminds me of late Scalia’s quote that some affirmative action recipients might do better at less selective schools. Which may be true in some cases, but being comfortable is not the most important factor; less selective schools have less financial aid, and Ivy Leagues give full scholarships now to any students from families earning under 100k per year. Or nearly full ride, they still expect (and rightly so) students to earn about 3k in summer jobs just to have some skin in the game. So I would still advise ambitious inner-city kids to apply to Ivy League schools, if they are willing to work hard.

So pretty much no one flunks out of Ivy League schools due to financial reasons or being forced to juggle school and work, nor for lack of intelligence. What happens a lot more often is that people may first aspire for a STEM major that turns out to be much more difficult than they expected. If they can’t cut it in STEM, they can usually switch to an easier major and still graduate in 4 years.

And failing the option to change one’s major (at least it was the case 17 years ago), one can still get a degree in “general studies”. Which doesn’t mean much, but at least it means something–about as impressive as a high school student taking a dozen AP classes and getting average grades (C’s, and 3 in the AP exams). That person isn’t a star, but has above average intelligence and is able and willing to put in the hard work to graduate in 4 years. If there are mitigating circumstances (coming from an inner city high school and a broken home, and unable to decide what to major in), I could even see such a person in a favorable light. Less so if they came from a prep school and a wealthy family, they should have hit the ground running in that case (being born on the third base and all).

I thought I’d add one insightful link here–overlook its sensationalist title, the article itself resonates with me and I find true. It points out the flaws in Harvard’s admission process (too many applicants are coached into saying the right things), and also comments sadly on how uncoached students are easily passed over because they don’t appear so eager:

[7]

#41 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On September 25, 2017 @ 8:32 pm

Now, the products of these colleges are a bunch of brainwashed Neo-Marxist automatons that can’t think their way out of a paper bag. The death of these institutions might mean the revival of Western Civilization.

And proletarian socialism, the highest product of western civilization.

My experience is that thinking of legacy admissions as conservative is like thinking that Wall Street is on the side of the GOP. In my experience, legacy admissions are pretty bipartisan.

James Hartwick is peddling standard communist propaganda… the two bourgeois parties are like tweedledum and tweedledee… except now the conservatives are catching on.

#42 Comment By Ray Woodcock On September 25, 2017 @ 10:17 pm

I was [8] from a course at Arkansas for filing an ethics complaint, as advised by the campus ethics officer, against privileged students caught in blatant exam cheating.