Since 2003, classes at Wellesley have adhered to a grading policy that many students know as “grade deflation,” the ramifications of which were considered briefly during a discussion on stress culture at Senate on Feb. 12. Despite the administration’s insistence that it is merely a policy of fair grading and not one meant to deliberately lower students’ grades, students raised concerns about the policy’s effects on student life, stress and mental health, specifically on students of color, lowincome students, first-generation students and others of varying backgrounds. According to the large number of students who spoke during Senate, as well as others on campus, students feel compelled to take classes at other institutions in order to maintain a suitable grade point average (GPA) for postgraduate study and jobs since employers and admission offices may count a student’s lower GPA against them.
The grading policy was implemented after Wellesley began to be considered one of the colleges with the worst grade inflation in the nation. In 2000, almost threequarters of the seniors graduated with Latin honors, and the average course grade was an A-, which diminished the value of the grade and in turn devalued the meaning of a Wellesley degree. In response to this, the College fundamentally changed its approach to grading. In a 100 to nine vote, with four abstentions, the Academic Council changed these grading standards so that the mean grade in 100- and 200- level courses cannot be over a 3.33 (B+) for a class of more than 10 students. If, for a specific course, the mean grade is over 3.33, the instructor must submit an explanation to the Committee on Curriculum and Academic Policy (CCAP). This average is said to emerge organically if the assessments are set at an “appropriately high” standard, according to the Frequently Asked Questions page of the Wellesley Office of the Registrar website. This policy change was intended to provide grades that are relative to students’ strengths and weaknesses given high academic standards. The CCAP voted in favor of the policy again in February 2008 and April 2011.
Dean of Students Sheilah Horton, who was present at Senate during the discussion, maintains that “what I’ve heard is that ‘grade deflation’ is the language used by students—but it means that an average grade is an average grade…I don’t think there’s a policy of ‘grade deflation,’ just a policy on how grades are recorded to ensure fairness,” according to the Senate minutes. Many Senators expressed their dismay at this sentiment. When asked if the administration is adequately addressing feedback on the policy, Sarah Sansón Hernandez ’21, senator for Mezcla, says, “I would say not really. I work closely with other student leaders who have brought this topic up and shared their and others’ concerns directly to administrators with little to no action.”
Hernandez stressed that “this policy negatively impacts the GPA of students of color, first-gen and lowincome [students … and] that Latinx students have the lowest graduation rate in this institution.” Research published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives in 2014 demonstrates that some students are more likely to be affected than others. The study, conducted by Economics Professors Kristin F. Butcher and Patrick J. McEwan and Associate Professor of Economics Akila Weerapana, found that “the estimated drop in grades … is much larger than average for black students (including African-Americans and foreign students who self-identify as black), those with low SAT verbal scores and those with low Quantitative Reasoning scores. The [ … ] results for those with low SAT verbal or low Quantitative Reasoning scores are not being driven by that group being disproportionately likely to be black. The estimated drops in grades for these groups are statistically different from the average drop at one percent level of significance, except for the Latina group, where the drop is statistically significant at the five percent level.” Though the researchers concluded that this evidence will more accurately inform professors of which students need the most help, it is clear that grade deflation most heavily burdens students of color, particularly black and Latinx students.
The overwhelming effects of the grading policy have compelled many students to seek out educational opportunities at other nearby institutions that are seen as fairer. Wellesley, which encourages these exchanges on the basis of educational diversity, has offered crossregistration with MIT for over 30 years and has since added programs with Babson College, Olin College of Engineering and Brandeis University. According to the Opportunities at Other Schools page on Wellesley’s website, “Change of venue or tone is not only invigorating, but inherently complements the Wellesley experience, where seeing things from different vantage points is a key ingredient to broader learning and more creative insight on all issues.” However, despite this claim, many Wellesley students agree that classes at other institutions, particularly MIT, are often taken solely to raise GPAs. According to Hernandez, “I have heard those in my constituency and in my friend groups say that they have in the past taken classes at MIT and other institutions for a better grade even though they claim to give the same amount of effort into these classes as they would Wellesley classes.”
In a statement to The Wellesley News, Dean of Academic Affairs Ann Velenchik explained that “There are 417 students [who] are cross-registered at MIT for spring 2018. Cross-registration is intended to give Wellesley students the opportunity to study in areas that we don’t offer and at a more advanced level in some fields.”
A popular MIT cross-registration course is Conversations You Can’t Have on Campus; Race, Ethnicity, Gender and Identity, or “Conversations”, as it is more popularly known. On the MIT course browser, the description for the course reads: “What is race? What is ethnicity? How can communication and relationships between men and women be improved? What causes segregation in our society? How do stereotypes develop, and why do they persist? How do an individual’s racial, ethnic and sexual identities form and develop? This course explores these topics and more.” The course has been known throughout the years as a grade-booster, and some students have allegedly taken the courses multiple times during their time at Wellesley.
When asked about students who have taken Conversations multiple times, Velenchik said, “the Committee on Curriculum and Academic Policy is reviewing the content and grading standards in the course and other similar courses. Wellesley does not typically permit students to enroll in the same Wellesley course for credit toward their degree more than once, and in September 2016, the College applied the same policy to MIT courses, including the Conversations course.” Kerry Wells ’20 and Stephanie Song ’20 both have taken Conversations and were drawn to the course because of its relatively light workload. As Wells says, “The class I’m taking at MIT is known for the [easy A], but the reason I’m taking it is because I’ve heard it’s a missed opportunity if you don’t. You don’t really get easy As at Wellesley, and I’m not necessarily saying that you should, but I do think that the grade deflation policy contributes to a huge stress culture and a competitive one, too. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but when you go to MIT, which is a rigorous school as well, you don’t feel the stress as much just walking around.”
Song, who has also taken Human Rights at Home and Abroad at MIT, differentiates between Conversations and other MIT courses. “I feel like MIT has a reputation of being easier than Wellesley. The class that I took was very on par with Wellesley standards … The easy A is only in regards to Conversations. MIT is also a competitive and academically tough school. I definitely think that the stress culture contributes to why students want to cross-register. Many of my peers believe that Wellesley makes it unnecessarily difficult to get an A. This stresses students out and motivates them to take classes elsewhere,” she explained.
Despite the longevity of this policy, students are increasingly feeling its effects and have been for a long time. Hernandez, who is worried about the potential consequences this policy could have on future jobs, internships, fellowships and other applications, said that “a recent Wellesley alum told me that for them, it seemed like they put so much of their time and energy into their academics for a slightly better grade when they should have just used that energy to enjoy their college experience. They questioned whether or not it was actually worth it at the end.”