Skip to main content

Can Harvard stop awarding so many As?

By Stephen Joel Trachtenberg
updated 4:39 PM EST, Fri December 6, 2013
Harvard College campus
Harvard College campus
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The most frequent grade given at Harvard is A and the median grade is A-
  • Stephen Trachtenberg: Grade inflation can be stopped; just look at Princeton
  • He says it seems that higher education has morphed into a consumer business
  • Trachtenberg: Faculty want good student reviews just as students want good grades

Editor's note: Stephen Joel Trachtenberg is president emeritus and university professor of public service at George Washington University. He is chairman of the Korn/Ferry Higher Education Practice and senior client partner at Korn/Ferry International, an executive recruiting firm.

(CNN) -- In case anyone had a shadow of a doubt that most Harvard students are precocious, smart, if not learned, we hear from the lips of Harvard's Dean of Undergraduate Education, Jay M. Harris, that nearly all the students at Harvard are indeed above average -- so much so that the median grade given is an A- and the most frequent grade awarded is an A!

What are we to make of the news? Well, first of all, this is not exactly news. Harvard and many elite colleges across the country have witnessed the creeping ivy of grade inflation for quite some time -- a situation that has just about eliminated failure as a possibility.

It makes one wonder why the school bothers giving grades at all.

Stephen Joel Trachtenberg
Stephen Joel Trachtenberg

In the mid-1970s, when I was a dean at Boston University, there were rumors that a certain professor was indiscriminately awarding a final grade of A to all his students. That was unusual back then when most professors graded on the bell curve and only a handful of the best students received an A. Some actually failed and most received grades of B or C.

But in the case of this particular professor everybody got an A. As a test, I surreptitiously enrolled a fictitious student into the roster of his next class. This "nobody" never came to class, never wrote a term paper and never took an exam. At the end of the semester the mysterious student received an A.

That led to a discussion with the professor. In a tone of righteous indignation he claimed I had overstepped my bounds to play such a trick on him. With righteous indignation I claimed that he had underperformed as a professor by acting in a reckless manner, grading his students with careless abandonment. Steam came out of both our ears. I believed his actions were a mark of failure in academic responsibility.

Grades serve several purposes. They are a tool that measures a student's progress in relation to others in a class; they allow financial aid and scholarship committees to assess merit; and they culminate in a 4-year overall performance record in the form of a college transcript. Academic strengths and weaknesses are discovered over a period of time.

To some extent Harvard's faculty have abandoned their responsibilities to their students as well as to those who wish to judge their students: Admission officers at law and medical school; faculty selecting graduates to mentor them for advanced degree programs; employers deciding between applicants for jobs.

Decades ago, professors were often characterized by their students on the severity of their grading. Professor Smith is a tough grader -- no one gets an A. Or, Professor Jones is an easy grader -- no one fails. What can be said today? All the professors are easy marks as well as easy markers.

Why give everyone an A? When the admissions office puts together a freshman class full of high school valedictorians who have perfect grades and SAT scores, there is no doubt they are bringing capable students to the campus. But the power has shifted from the faculty to the students and a new form of entitlement on the part of students has developed.

If students are paying $55,000 a year, they may feel they have paid for the As in dollars as well as sense. Is there an unspoken academic transaction that is filtering into the university landscape now that tuition prices are in the stratosphere? Has higher education morphed into a consumer business in which the customer is always right? It seems like it.

First, universities have to compete for students in the marketplace. Then faculties do the same after students enroll. Professors want to be popular. They want good ratings from students at the end of semester reviews just as the students want good grades from them. Gut courses, once the exception, have become more common.

Faculty tenure, promotions and raises may turn on such matters right along with publications and other measures. University life, long a contact sport, has been upgraded to a blood sport. It's become a "dog-eat-dog" business in which departments try to fill quotas for majors.

And then there are the parents who are quick to speak out if they think their sons or daughters are under appreciated.

Is there a solution that can stop grade inflation? Yes, of course.

In 2004, Princeton readjusted their grading system instructing the faculty not give more than 35% of their undergraduate students A or A- grades, and apparently Yale is currently discussing a similar adjustment. Harvard faculty should construct a ladder that has a rung at the bottom, middle and top.

Last week, I had the privilege to chair the Rhodes Scholarship selection committee for the D.C., Maryland, North Carolina district. We interviewed 13 semi-finalists and selected 2 award winners. All 13 were exceptional; the final decision came down to the splitting of hairs. Out of the 32 Rhodes Scholars named across the United States, Harvard students came away with 6, an impressive outcome however one slices the pie. Perhaps they are all A students. But now we know many Harvard students receive As.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Joel Trachtenberg.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:11 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
updated 1:24 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
updated 9:06 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
updated 11:16 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat August 30, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT