News » University Affairs | Oct. 8
University President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 said “lots of concerns” have been raised by a field study released this summer showing graduate schools do not consider an undergraduate program’s grading policy when evaluating applicants.
Eisgruber, who charged a University committee Monday with a wide review of the University’s 10-year-old grade deflation policy, mentioned the study in an event that night with New York City alumni. In an interview with former ABC World News anchor Charlie Gibson ’65, Eisgruber said the study raised concerns that the policy increases the difficulty of seniors landing a job or a spot at a top graduate school.
The study, published by UC Berkeley and Harvard Business School researchers in PLOS ONE in July, argues that students who come from schools with tougher grading standards are less likely to earn admission to choice graduate schools. The researchers had admission professionals evaluate undergraduates for admission to graduate schools and presented two main pieces of information: the student’s GPA and their school’s GPA distribution. The researchers found that admissions professionals displayed “correspondence bias,” or the downplaying of the context in which a task is performed.
“Instead of picking people who are most above average, you pick people from the most advantageous situations,” Samuel Swift, the lead author and a postdoctoral researcher at Berkeley, said. “The participants failed to take that situational information into consideration, so they ended up picking people with the highest GPA regardless of the situation they were coming from,” he explained.
Archival data from the field complemented the experiment. Swift’s team collected the data on 30,000 admission decisions to four top MBA programs and recorded how applicants’ GPA relative to the rest of their class affected the admission decision. Admissions decisions disregard the leniency of the grading system, they found.
The research also found correspondence bias in a different context: promotion decisions in a company. In a hypothetical business scenario, participants play the role of an airline CEO and unfairly favor the promotion of airport managers who have a higher percentage of their flights leave on time — even if accomplishing that task is harder at some airports than others.
While the effect of grading policies has been illustrated before in lab studies, Swift said July’s study is the first time an effect has been shown in the field. Eisgruber signaled Monday that Swift’s study might make an imprint on his thinking.
“I have not seen evidence that shows [that the grading policy hurts Princeton seniors],” Eisgruber said on Monday night. “On the other hand, there’s a Harvard Business School study out there that’s raised a lot of concerns about that.”
Mechanical and aerospace engineering professor Clarence Rowley ’95, who is chairing the committee rethinking grade deflation, said Tuesday he had not heard of the study prior to Eisgruber’s remark, though he hopes to begin to review evidence soon.
“I’d certainly be interested in any evidence about the effects of the grading policy on students’ careers after Princeton, whether it’s employment or graduate schools,” Rowley said.
The 2004 policy — the brainchild of then-Dean of the College Nancy Malkiel — stipulates that no more than 35 percent of students in any department should earn an A in a course. Though the University consistently states that the target is not a quota but an expectation, many undergraduate students have voiced displeasure with the policy. USG president Alex Lenahan ’07 and Malkiel argued publicly over the policy in a series of campus-wide emails in 2006.
Lindy Li, the president of the Class of 2012, said the policy has been a common gripe at many formal dinners she has attended alongside the University’s Board of Trustees.
“It’s always something that comes up. It’s an issue that won’t go away,” Li said. She has come into contact with at least 10 members of her class who refuse to donate to the University because of the policy, she said.
The trustees have advocated for a re-examination of the policy over the past three to four years, Li said, though young alumni have not made organized appeals to them. Li said that while she had heard of the new study before, classmates of hers have made similar arguments about the comparative disadvantage they face in job and graduate school markets.
“The applicant pool we’re immersing ourselves in isn’t just filled with Princeton people — it’s filled with people of all different walks of life who don’t necessarily have this extra challenge to overcome,” she said. “Things would be different if our peers followed along.”
Li’s opinion was shared by Swift, who said the implication of his research was that grade deflation policies harm schools that go it alone.
“Instead of using your GPA, what you should really have is a class rank or a percentile,” he said. “If all schools did that, we wouldn’t have to worry about the problem.”