Ivy League grade inflation continues

by Jenny Thomas | 11/18/99 6:00am

According to campus registrars at Dartmouth and throughout the Ivy League, grade inflation has been an increasing phenomenon over the past two decades.

"I don't know a school in the world where the grades have not gone up," said Thurston Smith, registrar of Harvard University. While Smith would not release the average undergraduate GPA at Harvard, he admitted it lies "somewhere between a B+ and an


According to Dartmouth's registrar Thomas Bickel, the situation is similar at the College.

"I have been tracking grades for almost 20 years and the inflation has been steady over that period," he said, referring to the .01 annual increase in GPA since the late 1970s. He also noted "a big jump" of .03 which propelled last year's average GPA to an all-time high of 3.31, although that number is lower than Harvard's average.

The University of Pennsylvania calculated a slightly lower GPA of 3.27. Because grades are especially inflated in the humanities, Penn is concerned that lower grades may be turning students off to their science program.

Brown observed a similar disparity between departments. While it "does not calculate an average GPA," the registrar's office released a grade report to the Brown Daily Herald in 1996 indicating that over 40 percent of student grades were A's, compared to only 31percent in 1985-86. As at Penn, a significantly greater percentage of A's were awarded to students in humanities courses.

Princeton would not release an average GPA, but its 1997 "University Faculty Committee on Examinations and Standing" convened with the purpose of combating what the Daily Princetonian called "25 years of rising marks." In response to recent grade inflation at Princeton, the committee hopes to both lower mean grades and broaden the distribution of marks in the next few years.

Yale formed a similar committee -- the "Forum to Address grade inflation"-- in late 1995.

Students at Cornell are also receiving inflated grades, according to the registrar's office, which admitted that the advent of the pass-fail option has greatly emphasized this augmentation.

"The theory is that students who are borderline opt for pass-fail, giving the appearance of grade inflation," the Office explained.

Indeed, there are many competing theories on exactly why grade inflation has become so prevalent.

One interpretation points to the increasingly high caliber of Ivy League students.

"The faculty does not use an absolute standard in comparison to other Dartmouth students but rather assigns grades as if they were competing with students all over the country," Bickel stated.

Smith's explanation differed slightly, placing a specific emphasis on professors at such institutions.

"Individual faculty members often say 'I hate grade inflation, but in my class, students really deserve those A's,'" he said.

Whatever the reason for the inflation, Bickel said he views it as a negative rather than a positive.

"I think we've come to a point where there is no way to distinguish the really good students from the quite good students and I think that's too bad," he said.