Downgrading Princeton

Princeton is considering a plan to limit the percentage of A grades to 35 percent.

The proposed percentages — less than 35 percent A’s for undergraduate courses and less than 55 percent A’s for junior and senior independent work — resemble the grading patterns at Princeton in undergraduate courses and independent work from 1987 to 1992.

Like other elite universities, Princeton has been trying to limit grade inflation. In 1971, the average Princetonian had a 2.99 grade point average; that rose to 3.36 in 2000.

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  1. I seem to remember that your alma mater was the worst offender regarding grade inflation… at one point, was’t the average g.p.a. around 3.7??? I know that they cracked down
    by getting rid of the option of dropping a class on the day of the final… I’m sure that dropped the average.

  2. Mad Scientist says:

    The point is: 35%?!?!?!

    Still sounds like a bunch of “gimmie” grades.

  3. Richard Heddleson says:

    Best grading system around? Harvard Business School, hands down.

    No more than 15% Excellent (A). At least 10% Low Pass (D). (Might have the percentages reversed.) Everybody else gets a Pass (B/C). If you really screw up and don’t try there is Unsafisfactory (F). Half your grades Low Pass or Unsat? Take some time off to reflect and grow before asking to complete your second year.

    The asumption is most students admitted and many who are not can complete the work.There’s enough incentive to stimulate competition, enough threat to stimulate fear. The same should be true for selective coleges like Princeton.

  4. Wow. How we have travelled from normal curves based on a C average…

    Based on personal experience, though, I know that higher percentages of A grades create better student evaluations.

  5. Richard,

    I think McGill University runs on a system similar to that, at least in the Faculty of Arts. It seems to me from experience and talking to others in my mostly poly-sci classes that the distribution of grades would match the Harvard one. I do not think the distribution pattern is intentionally based on Harvard’s, but the fact that professors at McGill are under pressure to deflate grades. I don’t always like the policy, but I know when I get an “A” on a paper or exam, I earned the “A”, unlike most of my friends at American universities. The work ethic and higher standards will pay off some day when I actually get a job, so I don’t mind too much.

  6. Richard Heddleson says:


    Glad to hear someone is copying it from whomever whether intentionally or not. Good luck and congratulations on those A’s.

  7. Richard,

    Thank you for the kind words. I just need to find out how I scored on my third-year Arabic final. If I passed, I will graduate (in only three years!) after one May course. If not,well, that’s going to be a problem.

    Seriously, more schools need to start reviewing their grading system. Do grad schools factor in which schools inflate their grades when comparing grad school applicants?

  8. Personal opinion, we need a high stakes exit exam that is the same across all the nation for every major preferably but at least for the business majors. The exam should be much like the CPA exam. You should be able to get a degree without passing the exam but a “Professional Certification” should carry weight for who gets hired and what salary they come in at, much like CPA certification greatly increases an accountants career prospects.

  9. McGill is not the only Canadian university where C’s are the norm. For example, most undergraduate courses at the University of Toronto have averages in the C’s, because that is the official policy of the Faculty of Arts and Science (if the average is significantly above 65%, the instructor must write a formal letter of explanation to the Faculty). This is a sensible policy with regards to large 1st and second year courses, but it becomes a bit ridiculous when applied to small, upper-division ones, fostering a “let’s fail everybody first and curve the marks later” mentality. It also puts UofT students at a huge disadvantage when applying for postgraduate programs in the US, since only a tiny percentage have the sort of sky-high GPA’s that seem to have become the norm these days. There’s no question that grade inflation is a serious problem that must be dealt with, but given the high marks admissions officials (and employers) have come to expect from reasonable students it’s not immediately clear to me how to combat it. Unless of course some sort of national grading standard emerges, which isn’t terribly likely. I suppose this is precisely the issue standardized tests such as the GRE are meant to address, but not all institutions use them and those who do don’t necessarily assign equal weight to the results.

  10. Ross,

    There is a crude form of what you are calling for from business majors. It is called the Major Field Achievement Test (MFAT) but it is not designed to be a certification test and most schools do not use it. Of those that do, it is used primarily to assess the program, not the student. Employers don’t know, don’t ask for it. CPA sertification is fine, but career prospects have declined a bit for accountants of late, so we lose more students by self-selection than by testing. Finally, the real test you seek is administered by employers, if not in the interview process, than it is done in the selection or early review process.

    But why focus on business majors? What about English majors who — according to their professors — are able to excel in business. So my final point, above.

  11. I have to say that while I’m glad the issue of grade inflation is being addressed, I don’t think that setting a quota for F’s is a good idea. A quota for A’s, particularly one as high as 35%, is a nice starting place, but I’m uncomfortable with the idea of quotas in general.

    I grade on a percentage curve, and I don’t curve downward based on the high score. I make it clear to my students at the beginning that anyone who can do 90% of what I ask them to do can get an A, and anyone who can do less than 60% of it will get an F. If seventeen of my forty students rise to the challenge and make 90%, all seventeen get A’s. The flip side of that, though, is that if seventeen earn F’s, all seventeen fail.

    Of course, it’s easy for *me* to grade that way. I am teaching a well-established specific body of knowledge that is easily assessed, to a specific level of proficiency. It would be harder to grade a sociology class that way. But still, I just can’t see specifying a quota on failing, especially in non-freshman classes smaller than 100 students. What would you do if you happened to get a really good class of hyperachievers paired with a really inspiring teacher who knew how to challenge them all to excellence?

  12. JorgXMcKie says:

    Well, Hermit: I don’t suppose I’m a really inspiring teacher, but I’m still waiting for that “really good of hyperachievers.” In most classes of 15+ to 50 (my typical undergraduate, non-Freshman level class) I regard myself as lucky to get two or more hyperachievers. I attempt to challenge and inspire all of them, but some apparently are beyond my meager abilities.

    Exampple: a pretty good (A potential) student who has been accepted for transfer at an elite University. Term project due this coming Monday. Assigned Jan 7. Detailed handout and continuing discussion over the course of the semester. Required one-page topic explanation required and handed in. Paper requires finding 4-5 surveys of opinion on topic of paper.

    Yesterday student emails me (not knowing whether or not I’m gone for Easter), advising their inability to find “any” surveys on topic and wanting to know if a topic change is okay? This after meeting with me twice to get a letter of recommendation for the potential transfer. (Which I am beginning to wish I had back.) Exactly where did I fail, and what sort of grade should the student be able to expect?

    Of course, I could just chuck the other 5 courses I’m teaching this semester and concentrate on motivating this one class, but that hardly seems worthwhile. Detailed explanations of my grading system in my syllabi don’t seem to help. Perhaps they should just learn to live with the results of their efforts? Then I get crappy evaluations.

    Oh, well.

  13. The problem is the overemphasis on grades as numbers. Grade Point Averages in high school matter for college. In college they affect graduate school choices. In graduate school they can affect doctorate programs.

    And afterwards, many employers look for a degree and a pulse. I’ve applied to over thirty jobs since I’ve acquired an MLS, but only one has asked for a transcript up front. This can be a reflection of the reality of employers not caring about grades, or it means the employers already know that grades are inflated. Either way, it doesn’t do much for education.

    Another ridiculous item: in my graduate program, only grades of A or B can count toward a degree. Needless to say, I didn’t take accounting, mathematics, or physics as an elective.