The Most Frequently Assigned Grade at Harvard Is an ‘A’

A new statistic sets off another round of conversations about grade inflation.

Oprah Winfrey

“You get an A! And you get an A!” (Image Credit: Associated Press)

The most frequently awarded grade at Harvard College is an A, the Crimson reports this week, and the median grade is an A-. While these particular stats are new, the knowledge that inflation exists at Harvard, and most everywhere else in higher education, is not.

The data came out of a monthly faculty meeting, when Government Professor Harvey Mansfield asked Dean Michael Smith whether it was true that the most frequently assigned grade at Harvard College was an A-. It wasn’t true, but in fact, slightly more egregious.

“I can answer the question, if you want me to,” Harris said reluctantly, according to the Crimson. “The median grade in Harvard College is indeed an A-. The most frequently awarded grade in Harvard College is actually a straight A.”

Periodic stories about the rampant grade inflation at Harvard set off a round of debates with some regularity. And already, the national media is descending on this statistic to bemoan a generation of trophy-hoarding softies. But while it might inspire outrage and derision, it doesn’t really move the battle lines of the debate. Tepid defenders of the status quo will point out that Harvard undergrads overcame a 5.9 percent acceptance rate to earn admission. Many of them are A students, and handing out a majority of C’s might not be representative of their talent. Game theorists will note that it’s difficult for just one college to reverse the trend, making their students look worse than the competition from other schools when competing for jobs outside industries that understand the differences between a Harvard GPA and a Princeton one. Princeton, by the way, has implemented quotas, limiting the number of A’s its professors can dole out. It hasn’t been entirely well received by students or faculty. Already, the school says it’s reevaluating the policy. Clearly, there’s no answer here that satisfies all.

Still, the idea that a grade at Harvard is more likely to be an A than anything else seems a bit outrageous. And it creates a high-pressure system of its own. When you so limit the range of grades people are receiving, you basically set up a system of “pass and varying ranges of fail.” It means that if you take a class with someone who doesn’t ascribe to the current grading standards, and receive a B-, meaning you did about average in the class, it has an outsized influence on your transcript.

Still, don’t necessarily bet that a solution arises out of this incident. In 2001, it seemed equally outrageous that 91 percent of Harvard undergrads graduated with honors, a statistic reported in one of these periodic flare-ups. Harvard took measures to fix that statistic, but it doesn’t seem to have addressed the root issue. So will this be the round of mocking that forces the school to find a solution that sticks? They are, after all, a leader in higher education. If they announce that from now on, employers should interpret a wider range of grades from their graduates as something other than the declining intelligence of their students, a lot of graduate programs and employers will know about it. Then again, some schools might even imitate it.

  • Andy

    I saw some inflation there first hand and don’t deny it’s an issue, but it’s important to keep in perspective the flip side of this popular media gripe: It’s sort of like saying that most of the top 50 college running backs are running 40s in under 4.5. Yes, that’s why they’re there to begin with.

    • Shawn Poorman

      I tend to disagree. Provided that the curriculum at all schools is equal, your point makes sense. But, more difficult curricula should produce the same grade curve as less difficult curricula, if the students are well suited to either. Assuming you are correct, the question then becomes “Then what is the point of grading?” A grade of “C” is supposed to be “average.” In an ideal world, the median grade should be a 75. So let’s say that everyone at Harvard has between a 3.5 and a 4.0. How are we to then differentiate between student ability? That is to say, if everyone always gets A’s, who is better than whom? Kind of kills the whole idea of grading, doesn’t it? Personal experience: I’ve been to 3 different colleges here in Texas, including Texas A&M. ALL of them curve. Doesn’t matter if it’s the assignments individually or the final grade at the end. Fact is, the grades are not indicative of how much was learned. You are simply graded based on your performance relative to others. If the standards are continually pushing higher (i.e. the curve becomes smaller and smaller), then that is a good thing. Still not indicative of true performance, but if the comparison (average) is rising so then is the performance of each particular grade. If, however (as statistics from our high school education would imply) standards are lowering, then we would have no way to detect that, unless you can wrestle the true grades out of professors. My guess is professors are not required to report the real grades, so there goes that data point. This is all a symptom of our ailing educational system and the loss of competitiveness in our schools. The fact that even Harvard hasn’t escaped this trend makes me feel very uneasy about the direction we’ve taken. Sounds to me like Harvard needs to step up it’s curriculum. CLEARLY the students there could do better. Sure, some would fail, but that is capitalism isn’t it? Shame that it’s so difficult to get into but apparently not so difficult to graduate. That’s right, I said it. Harvard should be failing a decent portion of its student population. Else how much weight can a degree from Harvard possibly carry?