They say that the only ‘A’ that matters is the one between the ‘Y’ and the ‘L’. And according to a recent faculty report, there are quite a few in there. 

The data, going back to the 2010-11 academic year, show a rise in the share of A’s and A-’s given out at Yale College from 67 percent to 79 percent in 2022-23; the share of A’s only rising from 40 percent to 58 percent; and the average GPA rising from 3.6 to 3.7. This throws cold water on the idea that the high share of A’s simply indicates that Yale students are smart and talented and hard-working: any change in the composition of the student body is far too small to explain the observed rise in average marks over the last decade. The report also contains the share of A’s and A-’s disaggregated by subject, ranging from 52 percent in Economics to 92 percent in History of Science and History of Medicine courses. 

There are a couple of conclusions one can draw from these figures. As an econ bro, I now have a numerical justification for my inflated ego; as a Directed Studies (80 percent A-’s or higher) alumnus, I am even more certain of the god-awful quality of my fall semester literature essays. More seriously, the numbers confirm what everyone already knows. Yale, like other elite colleges, is in the grips of a nasty bout of grade inflation. 

At this point, it’s helpful to step back and consider: what is the purpose of college grades? I posed this question to Maya Jasanoff, a history professor at Harvard who is, conveniently, my aunt. She replied: “diagnostic and pedagogical.” 

Professor Jasanoff thinks of grades as having three purposes. Grades can function as a signal for employers and graduate school admissions officers. They can function as a pedagogical tool, showing students where they are doing well and where they need to improve. They can serve as a disciplinary measure by providing students with an incentive to do their coursework. To her, the second function is the most important.

Over the phone, she told me that “really what we should be doing is providing qualitative feedback to help students learn and grades are — or should be — a shorthand for this.” Ideally, these functions would be separated from the rest.  

To understand why grade inflation happens, consider a fourth function of grades: as a status symbol or social identity marker. If you’re a student at Harvard or Yale or some other elite college, you were probably a good student in high school. If you’re anything like me, that entails a confidence in your own intellectual and academic abilities, bound up with an insecurity that you might not be smart enough to make the cut. When you opened your admission letter, you felt like all those hours spent studying had paid off and that your status as a smart person had been confirmed. Even if every Yale student was in the top decile of academic ability in high school, only 10 percent can be in the top decile at Yale. But when you’ve tied a great deal of your identity to being a top student, that can be psychologically difficult to accept. This creates an additional incentive for students to press instructors to award higher grades, while teaching evaluations and a desire to keep course enrollments up can incentivize professors and teaching fellows to accede to do so. 

If we accept that grading as a signaling or disciplinary mechanism should be separated from qualitative feedback, then how should we go about that? One suggestion is to give students two sets of grades: an inflated one for their transcript, and one that reflects the true quality of their work. Part of the reason grade inflation is a problem is that the highest possible grade is an A; if people could earn A+’s or A++’s, then GPAs wouldn’t cluster around the top of the distribution. Uncapping grades is of course a somewhat fanciful suggestion, but bringing back class ranks would have a similar effect: accurately showing students where they are in relation to their peers.  

All these options come with tradeoffs and deserve a nuanced debate. But until some reform scheme is settled on, Ivy League schools must embrace transparency. Before professor Ray Fair, authorized by Yale College Dean Pericles Lewis, sent the faculty report to the News, Yale had not published this sort of data in over ten years. If the University published it regularly, then students, employers, and graduate schools could decide the real value of that ‘A’ for themselves.

MILAN SINGH is a sophomore in Pierson College. His column, “All politics is national,” runs fortnightly. Contact him at milan.singh.@yale.edu.

MILAN SINGH
Milan Singh is a sophomore in Pierson College, and one of the News' Opinion editors for the 2024-2025 school year.