Grade Inflation at the Other Ivies

By Viraj Patel, published at Dartmouth Review on Friday, March 1, 2002


When the Boston Globe ran a series of articles by Patrick Healy on grade inflation a few months ago, all eyes laid on Harvard University, for, to its chagrin, Healy exposed its ‘dirty little secret’—that ‘since the Vietnam era, rampant grade inflation has made its top prize for students—graduating with honors—virtually meaningless.’ Apparently, in its Class of 2001, 91 percent of Harvard graduates received the ‘distinction’ of honors. At the other Ivy League schools, the number is much lower: Dartmouth, 40 percent; Yale, 51 percent; Princeton, 44 percent; Brown, 42 percent; Columbia, 25 percent; and Cornell, 8 percent. The University of Pennsylvania does not release statistics because Penn administrators believe it would violate students’ privacy.

To receive honors at Harvard, the standard is questionably low. Harvard requires only a B-minus average in one’s major to be awarded cum laude. To earn honors in a major at Dartmouth one must write a thesis that is the product of ‘work that is greater in depth and scope than that normally required for the major’ and generally have an average of at least a B-plus in the major and at least a B in all courses. One can also earn general honors at Dartmouth through grades only, but it is limited to the top third of the class.

Thus, when Healy asked Dartmouth’s Dean of Faculty Jamshed Bharucha what he thought of Harvard’s high honors rate, his response was a supercilious but truthful: ‘It wouldn’t ever happen at Dartmouth.’ Yet how does Dartmouth compare to the other Ivies in terms of grade inflation itself?

In some respects Dartmouth has gotten relatively better. Due to a measure passed in 1994, Dartmouth has since added an extra notation beside the grade students receive on their transcripts: the median grade of each class and the number of students enrolled in each class. This way, if a student receives an A grade in a class, but the median grade is an A, meaning half of the class received an A or A-plus, an outsider reading a transcript will know that the grade is not very significant or not as meaningful as an A grade in a class with a median grade of a C. This theoretically should quell the tendency for students to enroll in classes only because the professor has a reputation for giving ‘easy A’s.’ It should also help to reduce instances of professors giving out unearned, high grades to boost enrollment into their classes.

Columbia adopted a similar system in 1996 where the percentage of A grades for each course is marked on the transcript. Harvard, on the other hand, considered such a system, but could not push it through the academic committee process.

Brown and Stanford dropped the D and F grades entirely out of their system during the 70’s. Ever since, a Brown student has yet to fail a course. If a course is not ‘satisfactorily completed,’ no record of the failure shows up on the student’s transcript. Some say this has lead to a ‘grade compression.’ Without the D and the F grades, professors are forced to give the poorest students at least a C. This, of course, pushes the rest of the grades up if the professor is going to be fair to the better performers. Since an A is the highest grade possible, the top performers remain where they are while their lesser peers join them. Stanford reinstated the D grade in 1975, and in 1994, after a study showed that nine out of ten grades given out at Stanford were A or B grades, the university reinstated the F grade, albeit as a less foreboding ‘No credit.’

Despite Dartmouth’s best efforts, a comparison of statistics of recent class years shows that Dartmouth grades are about just as inflated as the rest of the Ivy League.

In the 2000-2001 school year at Brown, A and B grades constituted 44 percent and 25 percent, respectively, of received grades, while only 5 percent of grades received were C grades. Twenty-three percent of the grades were ‘Satisfactory,’ similar to ‘Pass’ in a ‘Pass/Fail’ system, and three percent were ‘No credit.’

In the same time period at Harvard, 51 percent of the grades were A and A-minus grades, with 54 percent of humanities grades, 50 percent of natural sciences grades, and 43 percent of social sciences grades, respectively, being A-range grades.

Dartmouth, while not releasing recent percentage information on letter grades and thus precluding a direct comparison, does release the median grades for all courses with more than 10 people each term. A Review analysis of the data revealed that during the 2000-2001 school year, 49 percent of courses had a median grade of an A-minus, B-plus, or higher, meaning that in nearly half of all courses, half of the enrolled students in each course received an A-minus grade or better. Further, out of the more than 1,200 classes held that year, 114 had a median grade of an A, and 403 had a median grade of an A-minus, while the lowest median grade was a C-plus to which only one class took the title. Overall, the median grade was just a little less than an A-minus.

All this stands in stark contrast to the grades given out at the Ivies just a little more than ten years ago. Over a ten-year period at Brown from 1989 to 1999, the percent of A grades rose 9.5 percent from 34.3 to 43.8 percent, while B grades fell 4.9 percent, C grades fell 2.6 percent, No Credit grades fell 1.1 percent, and Satisfactory grades fell 1.9 percent. At Harvard the percentage of A grades given has increased sharply from 23 percent in 1986 to 49 percent in 2001. Over the same ten-year period at Brown, at Dartmouth the average GPA has increased by 0.10 from 3.21 to 3.31. When the Daily Dartmouth investigated grade inflation in 1999, registrar Thomas Bickel admitted to a 0.01 annual increase in GPAs since the late 1970s, remarking, ‘I have been tracking grades for almost 20 years and the inflation has been steady over that period.’

The GPA increase at Dartmouth is even more pronounced, however, when compared to 1968 when the average was 2.7 and 1958 when the average was 2.2. In fact, the largest increase in grades at Dartmouth and other colleges occurred over the Vietnam era. One prominent theory is that during the 1960s, as the draft boards loomed over campuses nationwide, sympathetic, anti-war professors boosted student grades as something of a protest knowing that a bad grade could call into question a draft deferment.

Professors generally acknowledge the problem of grade inflation. Horst Richter, Chair of Dartmouth’s Engineering Department, admits, ‘It is existent everywhere, but we try to control it.’ As inflated as grades are now, however, trends show no indication of a slow down in the rate of increase of further inflation into the future. And since the highly competitive nature of the Ivy League makes a unilateral move by any single university unlikely, the situation will likely worsen for the foreseeable future.