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 3:41 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
updated 12:45 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
Alan Elsner says Secretary Kerry's early cease-fire draft was leaked and presented as a final document, which served the interests of hard-liners on both sides who don't want the Gaza war to stop.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
updated 2:18 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Rick Francona says Israel seems determined to render Hamas militarily ineffective.
updated 1:43 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
updated 4:28 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
updated 3:39 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
updated 2:52 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
updated 12:35 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
updated 6:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 8:09 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT