It is hard for a college to make a change, however well-intentioned, that will put it at a competitive disadvantage. Some schools— usually in the Ivy League— can get away with this. When Harvard decided to abolish “early decision,” no one really expected Harvard to suffer any particularly significant blow to its applicant pool. The expectation was not just that Harvard is Harvard but also that other schools would follow suit. Many did.
But when Princeton decided to cut back on grade inflation by limiting the percentage of students in introductory and intermediate courses who could receive an A to 35 percent, it was taking a real risk. Admissions to graduate school is cutthroat and by artificially capping the GPAs of its students, Princeton may have been putting them at a disadvantage. But that was not the reason the Princeton administration offered last week when it decided to revoke the decade-old policy.
The faculty report at Princeton noted the unpopularity of the current policy with students. The 35 percent targets for A-range grades "are too often misinterpreted as quotas. They add a large element of stress to students’ lives, making them feel as though they are competing for a limited resource of A grades," the report says.
Oh, the stress. I might actually have more respect for Princeton if they just said they didn’t want their graduates to be at a competitive disadvantage but the idea that there is too much stress in students’ lives just seems silly. After all, in real life there are a limited resource of admissions spots at top medical schools and law schools, there are a limited resource of high-paying investment banker jobs, a limited resource of spots in Congress, etc. etc. Why not a limited resource of A’s in your political science class.
InsideHigherEd also reports on a study of Wellesley’s anti-grade inflation policy. Which yields some more interesting findings. One of the reasons that grade inflation is so infuriating is that the kids who go into math and science fields are unfairly punished—because if you don’t understand organic chemistry you actually have the potential to fail, something that almost never happens in English or sociology.
The Wellesley researchers found that limiting grade inflation in the social sciences and humanities didn’t encourage more people to major in STEM fields. I don’t think this is entirely surprising. First, even if you limit the number of A’s in the humanities and social sciences, that doesn’t mean that a higher number of students is actually in danger of failing. Second of all, many students are simply unprepared to enter the STEM fields and wouldn’t take that chance even if they didn’t think they were going to ace their humanities
It is worth giving credit to schools that implement anti-grade inflation policies. But they may simply be fighting a losing battle.