Princeton Proposes Curbing the Growing Number of A's Awarded to A-List Students

April 8, 2004


Aiming to halt widespread grade inflation afflicting Ivy League colleges, Princeton University officials are proposing to limit the number of A's that its professors award.

The goal would be to lower the number of A's to 35 percent of all course grades, from 46 percent now.

Although there has been wide discussion of the easy grading policies at top universities in recent years, most highly selective colleges and universities have continued to give out abundant A's.

A survey by Princeton last year found that A's made up between 44 percent and 55 percent of undergraduate grades at 11 institutions: the eight Ivy League colleges plus Stanford, M.I.T. and the University of Chicago.

"We need to be more discriminating than we have been in the grades we reward," said Nancy Weiss Malkiel, dean of Princeton's undergraduate college, who released the proposal yesterday.

She said, "We believe there should be some correlation between intellectual performance and reward. We want grading to help students evaluate what they have learned, how well they have learned it and where they need to invest additional effort."

If Princeton's faculty approves the proposal later this month, it would be by far the biggest step in recent years by a top university to change the way it evaluates its students.

Harvard University said two years ago that it would reduce the number of students graduating with honors and make slight revisions in its grading system.

But a recent report by the dean of Harvard College, Benedict H. Gross, showed that after a tiny dip in average grades - from 12.67 (on Harvard's 15-point scale) in 1999-2000 to 12.58 in 2001-2002 - grades inched up again to 12.68 last year. (On a 4-point scale, where 4.0 is an A, that would have represented a 3.41 average in 1999-2000, 3.39 two years later, and 3.41 last year.)

Arthur E. Levine, president of Teachers College at Columbia University and an expert on higher education, said Princeton's proposal highlighted how big a problem grade inflation is.

"It's extraordinary that limiting A's to 35 percent represents an improvement in grade inflation," he said. "Princeton's plan won't solve the problem, but it should ameliorate it and stop its advance."

Dean Malkiel of Princeton said that the proposed grading limit would return grades to the levels of the late 1980's and early 1990's, and that some departments - particularly in the natural sciences - were already at or close to this level.

She said she expected some professors to oppose the plan.

"I know from our department chairs that they have some colleagues who say, 'No one is going to tell me how to grade.' "

But she said the university was not trying to abridge academic freedom or tell teachers what grades they should give. Under the plan, grades could vary class by class, but each department would be expected to try to meet the limit on A's. And for the first time, the faculty would be allowed to see the grades for every department.

"It's really a matter of the faculty agreeing to do this together," the dean said. "It all comes down to cooperation, moral suasion and exhortation."

She said that the college began working on the issue of grade inflation about six years ago, but that grades had continued to climb since then.

In a memo sent to faculty and students yesterday, she said that 65 percent of the graduating seniors in the class of 2002 had grade-point averages of B-plus or better, and fewer than 5 percent fell below B-minus. A student with a straight C average, she said, stood second to last.

When she talked with department chairmen, Dean Malkiel said, they told her that none of them could rein in their grades alone. A faculty committee led by Dean Malkiel developed the proposal to limit the number of A's given out.

Christian Wildberg, a classics professor who was a member of the committee, said yesterday that he was "pretty sure" that the proposal would be approved by the faculty.

"I can feel the changes already among my colleagues," he said. "We are thinking already about grading in a different way."

He said he had begun to give fewer A's, and had not received any complaints.

"I don't think anyone felt he was being treated unfairly," Professor Wildberg said. "Maybe there was a perception that the course I was giving was harder than they thought it would be. But I think anyone, when they sat down and thought about it, and thought about the essays they wrote and their participation in class, would have said that their grades were fair."

Dean Malkiel said that many students supported the notion of stricter grading because they understood that it would help them.

In her memo, she quoted one student as saying, "If I get the same grade for my very best work that I get for work that is not my very best, I'm less motivated to try to stretch as far as I can."

The dean also said that she did not believe Princeton students would be at a disadvantage under the proposed plan. She said that she had talked to numerous graduate school deans - at medical schools, law schools and elsewhere - as well as to potential employers. Most of them had encouraged her to take this step, saying that they would know that "Princeton grades are real grades."

"In the main, the theme was that this was a national problem," she said, "and that it would be terrific if a university had the courage to take it on."