Princeton Proposes Curbing the Growing
Number of A's Awarded to A-List Students
April 8, 2004
By KAREN W. ARENSON
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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."