With the GPA cut-offs for Latin honors at an all-time high, Yale College faculty are beginning to investigate grading trends.
At the first Yale College faculty meeting of the year last Thursday, Yale College Dean Mary Miller announced the creation of an ad hoc committee on grading policy to be chaired by economics professor Ray Fair. Though the University has kept information about its grade trends private since the 1970s, Miller said faculty have been observing long-term GPA trajectories across the country, and the new committee will examine Yale’s relation to these trends and the function of grades as a “pedagogical tool.” Miller said she would not speculate on the prevalence of grade inflation — a rise in the average grade assigned to comparable levels of academic achievement — at the University before the committee reports its findings, but six professors interviewed said they think grade inflation has contributed to climbing GPAs.
“I don’t know any faculty members who think they have lowered their standards,” English professor David Kastan said. “But I also don’t know anyone who doesn’t think there is grade inflation.”
The minimum GPA required for Yale students to graduate with Latin honors — given to no more than 30 percent of the graduating class — has steadily increased over the past decade. Members of the class of 2012 needed a 3.80 GPA to graduate cum laude, a 3.89 to graduate magna cum laude and a 3.95 to graduate summa cum laude, compared to 3.72, 3.82 and 3.91, respectively, for the class of 2006.
Stuart Rojstaczer, a former professor at Duke University who has researched grade inflation, said GPAs at colleges nationwide have been on the rise since the 1980s. Based on Yale’s honors cutoff levels and historical grade breakdowns, Rojstaczer estimated that the average GPA in the University is probably around an A-, a one-point increase from the B- average he estimates Yale had 50 years ago. Though Rojstaczer attributes this estimated increase to a number of factors, including heightened student expectations and a “modest” growth in the caliber of students, he said grade inflation is key to understanding the trend.
David Bromwich ’73 GRD ’77, an English professor, said grade inflation is not the only explanation for rising GPAs, as students in advanced courses within their majors or preferred areas of study often work harder and produce “first-rate work.” Still, Bromwich did not discount the influence of grade inflation, adding that many students are unsatisfied with grades other than A’s, which he said can put pressure on professors to give students better grades.
Philosophy professor Shelly Kagan, who inferred from student evaluations that he might be a harsher grader than some of his colleagues, said he has never felt pressured by his colleagues or the administration to become any more lenient. At least a quarter of the 40 students who evaluated Kagan’s “Introduction to Ethics” course last fall recommended future students take the course Credit/D/Fail.
“People at Yale are so smart, so talented — we’re not doing you any favor if we don’t continue to push you and really hope you become the best you can be,” Kagan said. “To do that, we need to really have a full range of grades.”
Rojstaczer, the former Duke professor who has studied grade inflation, said he thinks following grading models implemented at universities like Princeton is the best method of minimizing grade inflation. Since 2004, no more than Thirty-five percent of students may achieve grades of A+, A or A- in undergraduate courses at Princeton, according to the university’s website.
But Kastan said Princeton’s method is not perfect. While the policy may allow for sharper distinctions between “good” and “excellent” work, it might prevent students from earning the grades they deserve because professors are only able to award a certain number of top grades, Kastan said.
Miller said members of the ad hoc committee are currently combing through research pertaining to national grading trends and the psychology of grades.
“All these things prompt a conversation, but they don’t give much indication which direction this conversation will take,” Miller said.
The ad hoc committee on grading policy plans to present its findings at the February Yale College faculty meeting.