I had never heard of Princeton’s grading policy until I visited the campus as an eager high school junior. “Here at Princeton, no department can give A’s to more than 35 percent of students,” my tour guide said (or something along those lines — it’s been five years). “But it’s ok, because grad schools and employers know all about it.”
Under the former grading policy, “getting an A is a ruthless, unceasing struggle of the fittest to the end, with A’s remaining rare for no justifiable reason other than to bolster the perceived difficulty of this school,” wrote Princeton freshman Sarah Sakha in a truly outstanding column in The Daily Princetonian last week. It seemed to high school me — correctly, I now believe — that such a policy would make classes at Princeton competitive, even cutthroat. Especially now, when it has become so difficult to get into college and the kids applying are better qualified than ever, such a policy remains profoundly misguided.
Furthermore, I believed, such a policy would fundamentally alter Princeton’s culture, extending beyond the classroom and bleeding into all other aspects of undergraduate life. “Ultimately, it comes down to this: it’s all about the grades,” Sakha wrote. “Princeton has engendered a culture that attributes exorbitant value to a letter grade.” We should note that Princeton’s yield declined over the past decade, starting roughly when the school began to deflate grades. I don’t think this is because students care so much about their grades. Instead, they care about the culture of the place they call home.
But this is all old news. That grading policy is dead and gone.
Yet it’s worth dwelling for a moment on what we can learn from Princeton’s mistake. Especially considering how close Yale came to almost enacting a similar — or even more draconian — policy two years ago, we should pay close attention to our neighbors to the south.
First, the 35 percent cap was never intended to be a hard limit; rather, it was intended to be a “goal,” former Dean of Princeton College Nancy Malkiel told the New York Times in 2010. This sounds a lot like many of the proposals floated at Yale last year, where the limit on the number of A’s in a given course would be a mere recommendation or guideline. But, at Princeton, the “goal” quickly became seen as an inflexible quota. “I had complaints from students who said that their professors handed back exams and told them, ‘I wanted to give 10 of you A’s, but because of the policy, I could only give five A’s,’” Princeton’s then-student body president, Connor Diemand-Yauman, told the Times in the same article. Indeed, Princeton’s Faculty Committee on Grading concluded in its 2014 report that the policy had been widely misinterpreted. Though the number of A’s at Princeton had increased slightly over the last few years, it had hovered mostly around 35 percent. The takeaway: Guidelines don’t work.
Second, confusion and misunderstanding inevitably surround such a policy. Though Princeton claimed the policy hadn’t hurt its students’ job and grad school prospects, the university reportedly had considerable trouble explaining the policy to employers and other schools. Initially, the university sent out a letter and attached a statement to every transcript. Then, when confusion remained, the university distributed a question-and-answer booklet. In spite of these efforts, grade deflation may still have hurt Princeton graduates. A recent study by Samuel Swift, a Berkeley academic, found that grade inflation actually helps students in the search for jobs or in grad school admissions. Deflating grades, it would seem, is really not worth the confusion.
Third, such a policy can have long-lasting negative results, even once it is removed. Looking beyond the damage done to Princeton’s reputation and undergraduate culture, bewilderment remains in the policy’s wake. “The end of grade deflation was initially met with delight, then with some skepticism and finally — as with all things unclear and undefined — with confusion,” Princeton junior Ali Akram Hayat wrote in The Daily Princetonian last week. What will happen with the transcripts of upperclassmen, partly grade-deflated and partly not? The university announced it would send out a letter accompanying transcripts, but, of course, we all saw how well that worked the last time. Further, the Faculty Committee on Grading recommended replacing numerical guidelines with “grading standards” to be developed by each department. But what does that mean, exactly?
According to the Harvard Crimson, many professors hoping to spur Harvard to deflate grades were disheartened by Princeton’s decision. I suspect similar sentiments were expressed behind closed doors here at Yale. With Princeton’s pitiable situation in mind, I can only hope that such ideas stay right there — behind closed doors. Out of sight. Out of mind. Forever.
Scott Stern is a senior in Branford College. His columns run on Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.