The most common grade at Harvard is A, and the median grade is A-, Dean of Undergraduate Education Jay M. Harris explained, raising fears about top American Universities artificially inflating their grades or employing softer grading standards. The information was delivered at the monthly meeting of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, as a response to government professor Harvey C. Mansfield:
“A little bird has told me that the most frequently given grade at Harvard College right now is an A-,” Mansfield said during the meeting’s question period. “If this is true or nearly true, it represents a failure on the part of this faculty and its leadership to maintain our academic standards.”
After what appeared to be a shamed hesitation, Harris gave the response:
“I can answer the question, if you want me to.” Harris said. “The median grade in Harvard College is indeed an A-. The most frequently awarded grade in Harvard College is actually a straight A.”
In a later email response, Mansfield wrote that he was “not surprised but rather further depressed” by Harris’s answer.
“Nor was I surprised at the embarrassed silence in the whole room and especially at the polished table (as I call it),” Mansfield added, referencing the table at the front of the room where top administrators sit. “The present grading practice is indefensible.”
So is this a Harvard thing, or is it a national grade inflation issue? Well most top Universities don’t make their average grades public, and I could only find information on Yale and Princeton. Last spring, Yale’s ad hoc committee on grading found that 62 percent of Yale College grades between 2010 and 2012 were in the A-range. Their committee is yet to take any concrete measures, but it’s good to hear that at least they are aware of the problem. Meanwhile, Princeton has totally restructured their grading system. Princeton’s grading policy has set a common grading standard for the University, under which As (A+, A, A-) shall account for less than 35% of the grades given in undergraduate courses and less than 55% of the grades given in junior and senior independent work. The Faculty has agreed that grades in the A range signify work that is exceptional (A+), outstanding (A) or excellent (A-).
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However, even with limited information, it seems fairly intuitive that Harvard isn’t an isolated case – since the mid 1960s, US college grades have risen significantly, from an average of 2.5 to an average of 3.2 – something which doesn’t seen possible to explain just by improving student performances. However, Harvard seems more prone to this issue than other top universities. In 2001, FAS’s Educational Policy Committee labeled grade inflation “a serious problem” at the College after a report in the Boston Globe labeled the College’s grading practices “the laughing stock of the Ivy League.”
Still, Princeton aside, I have seen no discussions of grade deflation in Ivy League Universities.