I have chosen — and it’s sad that this had to be an actual choice — to spend my time as a Princeton student focusing on what I’m actually learning and not on the number of zeroes at the end of my probable starting salary. This means I fight with my parents a lot and have a gut-deep distaste for the career fair. This also means that I have never really been that stressed out about grade deflation. Most of the time, I feel that I deserve the grade I get. If I think I deserved a better grade than I received, I think back to the outfits I used to wear in sixth grade and remember never to trust my own judgment. I also remind myself that the learning is what’s important, not the letter.
That said, I would not complain if it were easier for me to get an A, so at first I was excited when Eisgruber announced plans to reexamine the policy. The more I think about it, however, the more I worry about why Princeton would even consider making this change in the first place. While I would obviously be happy to see grade deflation go, I think we need to consider whether the underlying motives are truly in the student body’s best interests, not just focus on how pretty our transcripts will look if the faculty finds that the policy’s 10-year reign has been unsuccessful.
The increasing importance of unilateral, numerical assessments in education — a result, in part, of measures initiated by No Child Left Behind and its accompanying programs — has been largely criticized. As standardized tests become more and more important, teachers find themselves subjected to regular evaluations, and their schools are ranked (or closed) according to their ability to meet these standards. Though this only applies legally to public institutions, private schools and universities too are beginning to feel pressure to prove they’re successful. And prove, in this case, means with numbers. Considering this climate, I would not be surprised if Princeton’s real motivation in looking again at grade deflation is actually a way to make our (very excellent) stats stay this way.
There are several ways our institutional anxiety about being “the best” manifests itself, from our desperation for inclusion in a Harvard/Yale rivalry that has nothing do with us to our quiet reinstitution of early action admissions that allowed us, at least partly, to compete with these school’s yields. The competition I would like to examine most closely, however, is the one that is arguably the most widely referenced: that of the U.S. News and World Report’s highest ranked college. We’ve won it before and we’ll win it again, but when my Facebook News Feed exploded with Tiger pride — which I found annoying and arrogant — I was gratified to see among all the boasting a link to an Atlantic piece by John Tierney that pointed out problems with the rankings. The most striking sentence in the article explained how the rankings can become more important to universities than the actual quality of their education, motivating them “to do what they can to raise their place in the rankings by, for example, spending lots of money on things the U.S. News formula deems important or by” — and this is the most important part — “aggressively increasing the size of their applicant pool so they can turn away a higher percentage of their applicants, thus showing themselves to be ‘more selective’ and thereby raising their rank.”
I know there are other factors influencing our discussion about grade deflation, but I don’t think we can forget that the most identifiably negative aspect of grade deflation is the bad press it gives us. The fact of the matter is that — to the high-achieving kids Princeton wants to attract — grade deflation is a huge deterrent. And Eisgruber’s desire to expand the student body presents a problem: We’d like to get bigger, but God forbid we get less selective. A Princeton that is easy to get into would not be the Princeton we’re so proud of, nor would it be the number one school in the country. If we get rid of grade deflation, or at least seem open to the idea of getting rid of grade deflation, we become almost perfect. The student body can get larger while Princeton stays just as elite.
It’s not that I think getting rid of grade deflation would be a bad move: I would take a 4.0 any day. What I am worried about is that this may reveal the Eisgruber administration’s possible — and unacceptable — preoccupation with prestige, statistics and meaningless numbers that eclipse the real reason we’re all here: to learn. That’s what matters most. Being number one should come second.
Susannah Sharpless is a religion major from Indianapolis, Ind. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.