As we get midterm grades back and look ahead to finals, many of us start crunching numbers. What percentage of our final grade will depend on this problem set? What about the midterm essay? How do I get an A in this class? Well, you’re at Yale, where your class is probably curved, your professor is probably lenient and you probably know how much reading you actually need to do. With Yale’s grade inflation epidemic, you’ll be just fine.
Since Yale’s C+ average in the 1920s, our grades have risen steadily. The Vietnam War accelerated this trend. Grades rose so that nearly all students could pass — and thus rely on their student status to keep out of the draft. Today, according to the Yale College Ad Hoc Committee on Grading, more than 62 percent of Yale grades were either an A-minus or A. And it’s creeping ever upwards.
In part, grade inflation stems from America’s consumer approach to education: A high GPA is a high return on this expensive investment. And so, student consumers, with their power of enrollment, reject any attempt at grade deflation. Yale’s own professor Shelly Kagan (known, among other things, for his dramatic Bluebook descriptions) wages a one-man campaign against grade inflation. Yet his protest falls moot and mute as most students take his class Credit-D Fail. When Wellesley instituted deflation caps in some of its departments, enrollment in those majors dropped sharply. Wellesley revoked the policy. Similarly, Princeton’s short-lived grade deflation experiment created a hostile work environment (outstripping New Jersey as the new worst part of Princeton).
Grade deflation doesn’t work — not for an individual professor, not for a department and certainly not for an entire institution. We’re stuck with our inflated grades, but maybe we can find a new normal.
First and foremost, our GPAs have a negligible effect on future employment. Often, the terrible maxim holds true: The only A that matters falls right between the “Y” and the “LE”. 3.5 is the new 3.0; 3.9 is the new 3.7. And a 4.0 carries the timeless message: Just live a little. Just as it always has been, it’s who you know, what you’ve done and how you interview.
Instead of scrolling through LinkedIn, we need to reaffirm our sense of self-worth and educational integrity. When 62 percent of us receive A grades— which technically mean that we are “excellent,” “outstanding” and “exceed expectations” — there is no objective standard for superb work.
Exceptional work and merely good work receive the same recognition, making Yale seem both too easy and unjust at the same time. If an A no longer means excellent, we never really trust that we have earned our grades. In fact, today’s A comes in the form of a personal email from a professor, pointedly saying: Yes, in fact, your essay was that excellent, actual A-quality work. Getting a really good GPA at Yale does not necessarily mean writing the best essay. It just means figuring out the system. To draw from the movie, The Incredibles: If we’re all [getting As], none of us are.
To fix the problem of grade inflation, Yale should appeal to both consumer desires and student conscience through a “split-grade system,” feasible for seminars and small lectures. Students would receive our existing inflated transcript grades, changing nothing about our post-Yale competitiveness. But professors would also grade privately along a “real grade” metric, providing conclusive feedback articulating what the student actually earned. The inflated grade lives on your transcript. The real grade lives in your ongoing conversation with your professor, your class and your work. It’s the real grade that is memorable, and it’s the one that is important.
As it stands now, this seediness of inflated grades inhibits the potential for professorial academic criticism. Receiving criticism is essential: to academic work, to professional life and for our personal development. Learning to accept criticism with thoughtful resilience is a skill we at Yale have yet to acquire. The most helpful conversations with professors are often the hardest, and most of our best growing comes from failures. “No, you didn’t do all the reading but still dominated section — that was rude and callous.” Or: “No, your essay wasn’t that great because you wrote it in two nights — that was a waste of both of our time.” Or, simply: “No, this wasn’t your best work. Try harder. Think harder. Do better.”
Owning up to the fallacies of the system would encourage dialogue around our academic performance. By addressing the farce of grade inflation, we could reclaim our education from our report cards. Neither course enrollment nor post-graduate careers would suffer, and the academic transparency would challenge students and develop more holistically educated Yale alumni. This rising tide might just actually lift all boats after all.
Amelia Nierenberg is a sophomore in Timothy Dwight College. Her column runs on Thursdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .