Dylan Tatz, a Princeton junior, imagines sitting in a seminar and thinking, "OK, there are 10 people here. Only 3.5 people are going to get A's [or A-minuses]." Those calculations weren't on his mind in 2003-04, when marks of A or A-minus made up about 47 percent of undergraduate grades at Princeton. But starting in fall 2004, Princeton will reduce that number to 35 percent, roughly the level between 1973 and 1992. "I think students will be motivated to work harder and learn more by getting accurate information about the quality of their work," says Nancy Weiss Malkiel, Princeton's undergraduate dean.
Princeton is the first college to formally curb grade inflation, which plagues many schools. When Stuart Rojstaczer, a pro-fessor of environmental science at Duke, collected data on grading practices at 83 colleges, he found that 79 of them had experienced "significant" grade inflation in the past few decades. Grades at selective private schools are especially high. A 2003 Princeton study found that marks of A and A-minus accounted for 44 to 55 percent of grades at the Ivy League colleges, MIT, Stanford and the University of Chicago.
While some faculty and administrators claim students deserve their high marks, others see grade inflation as a problem. Amherst president Anthony Marx notes that as grades rise, they become less useful to students, graduate schools and employers. Faculty committees at Amherst are discussing how to confront grade inflation, Marx says, but it's too soon to tell what steps they may take. He admires that Princeton has confronted the issue, but he worries that using such a "blunt instrument to impose a curve" could discourage students from exploring unfamiliar subjects.
Several schools--including Harvard, Stanford and the University of Miami--try to keep grades in line by informally pressing faculty. After evaluating this method for five years, Princeton faculty and administrators decided that only a universitywide standard would work. "Otherwise we have what [the department chairs] called a collective-action problem," Malkiel says. "There would be no incentive for the faculty in any single academic department to grade more responsibly if faculty in other departments were left free to grade much more liberally."
But a handful of schools have managed to keep grades constant without resorting to universitywide directives. At Reed College in Oregon, the average GPA has hovered around 2.9 for more than 20 years. "This really reflects the tradition and culture of the college," says Peter Steinberger, dean of the faculty. "The faculty feels the best way to teach students is to evaluate their work honestly." Reed's unusual grading policy may also play a role in curbing inflation. The college does not regularly report grades--students must ask to see them--and it does not award academic honors like cum laude or valedictorian.
Reed students seem unconcerned about strict grading practices, and Princeton undergraduates may not worry either. Tough grading is unlikely to hurt students applying for jobs, graduate schools or fellowships. "Schools that are not part of this inflation trend we certainly make note of," says Andy Cornblatt, dean of admissions at Georgetown University Law School. Recruiters at Accenture and Goldman Sachs say they also recognize that different schools have different grading cultures, and they consider this when hiring graduates and student interns.
Still, Tatz, the Princeton junior, worries that the new policy will make students more competitive. "Am I one of the top 3.5 people in this class?" he asks. "I'm afraid I'm going to have that running through my mind the whole term." One piece of advice: focus on learning something instead.