Two weeks ago, an op-ed in The Wellesley News criticized grade deflation for driving students to focus too much on their GPAs and not enough on the true value of their education. Most of us have a negative gut reaction to the idea that our A’s are harder to achieve than they would be without the grading policy. At a time when the job market has made little recovery since the 2008 financial crisis and GPA still plays an essential role in most graduate school, fellowship and job application processes, grades have a particular ability to set us on edge. While most Wellesley students like to take a good jab at our grading policy every once in a while, there are a few common misconceptions about the policy that need to be cleared up before we can really discuss whether it does more harm than good.
When I was an editor for The Wellesley News, I wrote two news articles related to Wellesley’s grading system. Before covering the first piece in my first year, I thought that grade deflation meant that my grades would be reduced by a little bit in each of my classes at the end of the semester. I was wrong. As it turned out, my understanding of the grading policy as a first year had been shaped more by rumor than by fact.
Debating Wellesley’s grading policy is a good thing — in fact, campuses across the country including Yale and Princeton are having the same conversations. Even as we speak, Princeton is in the middle of overhauling its grading standards. But before we get too excited about following in Princeton’s footsteps, let’s agree to get a few things straight about the Wellesley policy, starting with the context in which the policy was put in place.
1. “Grade deflation” is a response to rapid grade inflation.
Grade inflation, like monetary inflation, seems to be a naturally occurring phenomenon. When Wellesley’s grading policy was implemented in 2004, rising grades at colleges across the country had caught the attention of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and National Public Radio, making headlines like “How to End Grade Inflation” and “Grade Inflation — Why It’s a Nightmare.” Educators, particularly at elite institutions, lamented the fact that grades had lost all meaning and that students at top universities had come to feel they were entitled to receiving A’s. In the middle of all this, Wellesley was one of the worst offenders. In 2000, nearly three-quarters of the senior class graduated with Latin honors. By 2002, the average GPA at Wellesley was among the very highest of its peer institutions. Simply put, we had ended up looking like a school where students could get an easy A. In December of 2003, the faculty responded by voting in favor of our current grading policy, in part to preserve our reputation as an academically rigorous institution. In the years that followed, they voted twice to reaffirm our grading standards, once in 2008 and again in 2011.
2. Many employers and fellowships actually like it.
Two years ago, Dean of Academic Affairs Richard French told The Wellesley News that before the grading policy was adopted, he and other Wellesley professors had been approached by employers who asked them not to send them any more Wellesley students. Apparently, the students looked great on paper, but didn’t live up to their impressive transcripts in person. These days, with many employers and fellowship programs still frustrated by grade inflation, Wellesley enjoys a stronger reputation. Just last year, the Rhodes Trust, provider of one of the most competitive scholarships in the country, praised institutions like Wellesley that have implemented policies to curb grade inflation, saying such policies are actually an advantage for their students. Employers and grad schools who aren’t familiar with our grading system can read about it in the letter from the provost that Wellesley sends out with each student transcript.
3. The average in classes affected by the grading policy is a B+.
The grading policy doesn’t actually deflate the grades you’ve already achieved. In fact, many consider the term “grade deflation” when applied to the Wellesley policy a misnomer. Economics Professor Akila Weerapana in an interview with Radio Boston joked that we should instead call the policy grade “disinflation.” The policy states that the class average shouldn’t be higher than a B+ as an institutional standard. It doesn’t dictate the grade you get on individual assignments nor does it set a quota for the number of A’s given out. It also doesn’t require your professor to grade on a curve. Instead, it sets a goal for the average final grade in your course at the end of the semester. Personal ambition aside, most of us would have to admit that a B+ isn’t too shabby, and it makes sense as a class average. It also doesn’t mean that more students are getting C’s. According to a recent study conducted by Weerapana and two other economics professors Kristin Butcher and Patrick McEwan, the grading policy seems to have caused professors who were previously awarding lots of A’s and A-’s to start giving out more B-range grades. So, the next time you get an A on a paper or a problem set, you can take pride in the fact that your “A” doesn’t stand for “average.”
4. It doesn’t affect all your classes.
Our grading standards aren’t as strict as they are at some other institutions, like Reed College and Princeton University. This semester, a little less than two-thirds of Wellesley courses are subject to the grading policy. Specifically, it applies to 100- and 200-level courses with 10 or more students. The introduction of shadow grading in the fall semester of first year should also ease the grading policy’s effects.
5. Professors don’t have to follow the grading policy.
It’s more like a general standard than a hard-and-fast rule. If Wellesley professors want to award a class average higher than a 3.33, they can submit an explanation to the chair of the Committee on Curriculum and Academic Policy without facing any negative repercussions.
6. Majoring in science and math isn’t as intimidating as it used to be.
Weerapana, Butcher and McEwan’s research found that before the grading policy was implemented, students studying science, math and economics were less likely to graduate with Latin honors than their counterparts in the humanities and non-economics social sciences. It’s true that our grading policy lowered grades slightly in the humanities and most social sciences — on average by about half a “plus” or “minus” — but the playing field across disciplines is much more even today, making it just a little easier for Wellesley students to venture into STEM fields or economics.
7. Yes, GPA cut-offs might still hurt you after graduation.
It depends on where you apply. Many graduate and professional schools, fellowship programs, and employers take note of varying grading policies at schools when evaluating a candidate. According to representatives from the Center for Work and Service, employers, fellowship programs, and graduate schools are increasingly evaluating applicants holistically. Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Tufts School of Medicine and Boston University School of Law are among the institutions that account for academic rigor during the application process. However, some graduate, professional schools and employers still use GPA cutoffs to shrink their application piles.
8. We’re not the only ones debating our grading policy.
Grade inflation is still considered a widespread problem in higher education. Different institutions have responded in different ways. Last month, Princeton struck down its notorious quota on the percentage of A-range grades a professor may give, instead choosing to explore a more flexible policy. At the same time, Yale is considering strengthening its efforts to reduce grade inflation. Other institutions like MIT have managed to curb grade inflation without an official policy. Some like Harvard haven’t responded at all despite pressure to do so. Even governing officials are weighing in. A bill filed last year in the Texas legislature, if passed in the State Senate, would require all public colleges and universities to include on their student transcripts the average grade for the entire class.
The misconceptions that are floating around about the Wellesley grading policy only make it harder to discuss its merits in any meaningful way. Students who rotate through the College every four years are often on a different wavelength when it comes to long-term policies than administrators who are here for the long haul. Year after year, administrators and the students who work closely with them must clear up the same misconceptions about what the grading policy is. The best way to guarantee that our policy is effective is to stop spreading faulty information and bring new students up to speed. That way, when we come back to campus as alums, we don’t find the next generation of Wellesley students sitting around the shiny new Munger dining hall rehashing the same old arguments about how “grade deflation” is killing their job prospects.
So now that you have your basics, by all means, go forth and discuss.