May 18, 2001

Harvard prof. decries grade inflation trend

In the past, getting a C on a report card meant "average." These days, a C is deemed the "minimum acceptable grade" and the once rare A is now the "average." On college campuses across the nation, including Harvard and other top universities, this perspective on grades has increased, as more and more students receive A's and A-'s. Some people attribute this increase to a rise in the number of gifted students in America, while some say students now are more deserving of good grades. Some call it grade inflation.

"Grade inflation compresses all grades at the top, making it difficult to discriminate the best from the very good, the very good from the good, the good from the mediocre," said Harvey Mansfield, a professor of government at Harvard University.

Mansfield, a member of the Harvard University faculty since 1962 and a longtime critic of grade inflation, began noticing the upswing of grades at Harvard in the late '60s.

According to Mansfield, in the wake of the civil rights movement, white professors ceased giving low or average grades to black students, and either to justify or to conceal it, they stopped giving those grades to white students as well. "From 1970 to 1971, grades went up very quickly in a very short time," Mansfield said. "What was remarkable was that they didn't come down afterwards. Then they sort of went on a more or less even plane till about 1985. Since then, they've been rising about every year."

Mansfield also thought the courses being offered at Harvard were becoming easier, triggering his skepticism of students' grades. "There are a lot more easier courses at Harvard than there used to be," Mansfield said. "Once you get easier grades, it's hard to have hard courses. Consequently, students don't have to work hard to get a good grade."

Recent Harvard statistics reveal that of the total grades received by the undergraduate population, 51 percent were A's or A-'s (25 percent A's and 26 percent A-'s), while 22 percent were B+'s, and 14 percent B's. This leaves a remaining 13 percent of the grades being a C+ or below. Moreover, these figures indicate that every fourth grade given by a Harvard professor is an A.

"At Harvard, we have lost the notion of an average student," Mansfield said. "By that I mean a Harvard average, not a comparison with the high-school average that enabled our students to be admitted there. When bright students take a step up and find themselves with other bright students, they should face a new, higher standard of excellence."

While similar trends have been noticed at the University of Chicago, faculty members express mixed emotions about the presence of grade inflation.

"There has been an increase in the number of students that have achieved General Honors," said John Boyer, dean of the College. "That would indicate that the grades have been increasing slightly, but [inflation] is still less than other schools'."

Despite its relation to other schools', Boyer does not believe that grade inflation at Chicago is caused by a weakening of standards. "However, it may be due to a number of things," Boyer said. "The quality of the students may have increased. One could also argue that we have more gifted students."

Students at the University of Chicago are awarded General Honors at the time of graduation if their overall grade point average is 3.25 or higher. According to statistics released by the Office of the Registrar, in 1971, 31 percent of graduates from the College received General Honors. By 1997, there was an observable increase of this figure, with 50 percent of graduates receiving the award.

"I think that there is some mild grade inflation. However, I don't necessarily think that this is a bad thing, particularly looking at the U of C in the context of grading policies in other schools," said Susan Art, associate dean of students at the College. "I also think that other institutions recognize that the U of C has had much less grade inflation than other schools. Therefore, a GPA here should be equal to a higher GPA in another school."

Mansfield agrees. "The University of Chicago is America's leading research university and has a reputation for having less grade inflation in comparison to other schools," he said. "This doesn't surprise me."

However, some worry that this comparison may be unflattering. "I have heard it said that there are some departments that are concerned that grades here are lower than at other schools. That's a problem for our students applying to other schools," said Michael Jones, associate dean of programs and development at the College.

In fact, many students applying to graduate or professional schools may find getting in difficult due to their lower GPAs as a result of the U of C's comparatively slight degree of grade inflation. However, in a 1998 report released by The Los Angeles Times, it was found that several graduate schools in California employ "grade adjustment" during the admissions process.

According to the report, "grade adjustment" is the term given to describe the process of changing an applicant's GPA based on the admissions committee's evaluation of the applicant's undergraduate college. For example, if an applicant got a B average in college -- a 3.0 on a 4.0 scale -- the institution could raise the GPA to 3.2 if the committee were impressed with the applicant's college, or lower it to 2.8 if they thought less of the school.

The University of California-Berkeley Boalt Hall School of Law was among the professional schools that disclosed such "adjustments" as mandated by California law. Under the Boalt formula, each college is ranked according to how its students perform on the standardized law board exam, the LSAT, and how common a high GPA is at that school.

According to the numerical formula, students from schools scoring 79 and above had points added to their GPAs. Those from schools scoring 72 to 78.9 received no adjustment, while those whose schools scoring 71.9 and below had their GPAs lowered.

The University of Chicago received a score of 87.0, indicating an upward grade adjustment for applicants' GPAs. Other peer institutions, including Harvard, Yale, and Stanford universities received ranks of 86.5, 82.5, and 80.5, respectively. Schools such as UC Berkeley and the University of Illinois received no adjustment, with ranks of 78.5 and 78.0, respectively, while the entire California state system and schools such as Pepperdine University warranted a subtraction from students' GPAs.

According to Mansfield, such grade adjustments may be linked to the notion of grade inflation. "Graduate schools take this [grade inflation] into account," Mansfield said. "If we were to take measures against it, they would take that into account as well."

Mansfield also suggests that grade inflation has resulted from the emphasis in American education on the notion of self-esteem. "According to that therapeutic notion, the purpose of education is to make students feel capable and empowered. So to grade them, or to grade them strictly, is cruel and dehumanizing," Mansfield said. "No longer is the job of a professor a sort of taskmaster, but rather to be a friend, always patting you on the back."

Mansfield argues that grade inflation is bad not only for the student, but also for the faculty. "It's a sign that the faculty has suffered a loss of morale and doesn't really believe in what it's doing," Mansfield said. "If you care for something, then that makes you more of a critic and not less of one. The same thing goes if you care for your students; you want to hold them to high standards."

To circumvent the problem of grade inflation, Mansfield established a two-grade system in his political-philosophy course at Harvard. Students received two grades: one for the registrar and the public record, and the other in private. The official grades conformed to the university's inflated distribution in which 25 percent of grades given are A's and another 25 percent are A-'s. The private, personal grade depicted a student's real grade.

"I sort of had a false position for some years now," Mansfield said. "The grades I was giving weren't as low as what other [professors] were giving them nor were they as high as what students expected. So I'd tell them the truth in private and give them the flattery in public. One is the official Harvard registrar's 'flattery' grade, the other is the real thing of what they're really worth." As a result of Mansfield's two-grade policy, more students have come to enroll in his class, but Mansfield considers the situation unresolved.

"There are a lot of people that don't think there's a problem," Mansfield said. "This is one of the big reasons why grade inflation continues. The students like it. Your parents love it getting growing transcripts in the mail. Nothing gets done and the situation gets a little more rotten each year."

Mansfield, despite opposition from the Harvard administration, continues to advocate remedies for grade inflation. He recognizes schools such as the University of Chicago as models of schools with less grade inflation than Harvard. Mansfield also emphasizes the role of the American ideal.

"After all this, it's a democracy. We'd like to think of ourselves as equal to each other. It's always that kind of pressure to treat everybody the same," Mansfield said. "However, we are a democracy that likes merit and the consequences of merit, which is progress. From top to bottom, we need to put our standards first. What we need above all is to muster the determination to act. Our leaders need to lead."