Princeton May Review Policy Meant to Combat Grade Inflation

Princeton University may be putting an end to their policy that limits the number of students who can receive an A in each course.

The policy, which limits the number of A’s to 35% of the total class, was put in place in 2004 to end grade inflation.  Almost 50% of students at the time were receiving A’s.

University president Christopher L. Eisgruber is hoping to change the policy to allow each academic department to set their own standards for grading.  The report released last week concerning the change stated that numerical targets “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 grades,” it said, adding that a better approach would be “grading standards developed and articulated by each department.”

Almost 32% of Princeton students reported the policy as the worst part of their college experience in a 2009 poll, claiming it devalued their work.  Because Princeton was the only school to adopt the policy, many students felt they were at a competitive disadvantage when it came time to find a job.

“Often even good friends of mine would refuse to explain simple concepts that I might have not understood in class for fear that I would do better than them,” the report quoted the student as saying. “I have also heard from others about students actively sabotaging other students’ grades by giving them the wrong notes or telling them wrong information.”

Eisgruber’s report did say that while the policy in no way affected students who went on to apply to graduate school, it may have had some influence on keeping applicants from coming to Princeton in the first place, as other highly ranked schools were found to be using a similar policy to recruit students to their own school, saying that limiting the number of A’s allowed “sends the message that students will not be properly rewarded for their work.”

Last year, Harvard confirmed that the most common grade given to undergraduates at their school was an A, with the median grade as an A-.  Yale also stated that about 62% of their students received an A.

Janet Rapelye, Dead of Admissions, stated that when prospective students and parents came to visit the school, questions about the policy are always on the top of their list.  Many view the policy as inflexible.

A separate study out of Wellesley College, published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives, found that students were 14% less likely to receive an A in classes which had such a policy in place, a drop from the 30% who received an A prior to the policy.

Jeremy Adelman, a professor in the history department, said the targets reduced grading to a formula, which misses the point. “We should be having a conversation about what we do when we’re grading,” he said. “Grading is a signaling device, and we’re communicating with students. People got really fixated on the numbers and not on the practice of what we’re doing.”