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Grade deflation devalues education

On both sides of the grade deflation debate, the most talked-about argument is its effects on postgraduation employment or admission to graduate schools. On one side, the administration allows students applying to jobs or graduate schools to attach a letter from the University explaining its tough grading stance compared to other universities. However, many students remain worried about the effects grade deflation may have on postgraduation plans. But whether or not these doubts about grade deflation barring seniors from jobs are true, I argue that we are overlooking an even more important issue grade deflation raises: the issue of whether or not it impacts the quality of our education itself.

​The fact is, regardless of whether Princeton grades really look bad in comparison to grades from another school to employers, students think they will. Furthermore, they know high grades are still achievable — they know A’s are still floating out there, but think there are less of them in the grab bag. According to the administration, this isn’t strictly true in every case, as it points out the 35 percent cap is not a hard cutoff. And, of course, adherence to the 35 percent benchmark varies from professor to professor. But the dangerous thing is that students are wary of whether or not this is true, and that perception is impacting their decisions regarding course selection and the learning process itself. Students are refusing to accept that lower grades are the norm because of grade deflation, especially ones who depend on high GPAs for admission to a medical school or another competitive program, and are doing anything they can to garner the grades they want, whether that means not taking classes out of pure interest or taking requirements at another institution for higher grades.

​In some instances, taking classes over the summer is valid — for example, in the case of course deficiency or in the case of not having other engagements over the summer. However, several fellow students I know have taken Princeton requirements at other institutions over the summer, on top of full-time internships, just to escape grade deflation. In these cases, students are bypassing full-term classes that are prerequisites to other classes and teach fundamental skills they’ll need later on — for example, linear algebra or physics — by doing accelerated programs that aren’t as rigorous as the University’s courses. This is an unintended consequence of a grading policy intended to “provide fair and consistent standards across the University.” Implicitly, these standards are intended to encourage students to work harder for better grades and thus learn more rigorously, but students will not learn more if the standards are causing them to bypass Princeton requirements by taking equivalent courses elsewhere.

​It also seems around campus that grade deflation is creating a desperate culture of course-engineering in order to maintain higher GPAs. I have spoken with people who have shied away from language classes they otherwise would have taken simply because of a harsh curve. I myself would have liked to take COS 340: Reasoning About Computation, if not for the fact that it is notoriously an easy A for math majors and a crapshoot for everyone else. It is of course natural for students to take a reasonable course load and not burden themselves with several hard classes at once, but it is also not acceptable for Princeton students to bar themselves from learning what they want to because of stress over a grading policy. I see classmates dropping out of classes they want to be in after a horrendous curve on the midterm — ECO 362: Financial Investments had a median of 100 percent last year — and classmates taking the same PDF-only courses — namely creative writing — again and again and again instead of something new. This pattern of action shows me that regardless of whether or not graduate schools and employers accept grade deflation, students cannot accept that they are getting lower grades than their peers at other institutions and are basing educational decisions on finding ways to mitigate the negative impact of grade deflation.

​It is a reasonable goal to provide “fair and consistent” grading standards, but the University must understand that it is hard to accept these standards for students who still, regardless of what letters the administration sends and regardless of what the administration says, feel they are up against other schools who are grading on a different scale. Either the students must be once and for all persuaded that grade deflation doesn’t negatively impact them, or some more leniency must be granted in the grading policy, because the culture that exists now is a fear – a fear of learning what they want to know and what they need to know.

Barbara Zhan is an Operations Research and Financial Engineering major from Plainsboro, N.J. She can be reached at barbaraz@princeton.edu.

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