Andrew Sondern & Carolyn Kelly

Andrew Sondern & Carolyn Kelly

When the Daily Princetonian announced, on October 6, that grade deflation was “dead,” campus remained oddly quiet. There was no cheering, no laughing or dancing or popping of screw-top champagne. In fact, I heard little mention of the news at all. It could have been any other Monday as students moved from class to class with an air of casual concentration, pausing only to make the occasional joke about the weekend’s antics, or to vent about an upcoming exam. A tour group passing through that afternoon would never have guessed that a ten-year policy had just been overthrown, ostensibly for students’ benefit.

Perhaps we were simply too absorbed in our own day-to-day obligations to bother, our jam-packed schedules leaving little time to care about anything less than pressing. Or perhaps we feared being perceived as superficial for celebrating the prospect of a higher GPA. Whatever its reasons, this silence seemed an odd response to a decision that was specifically intended to improve the wellbeing of students. In its statement to the public, the administrative committee responsible for the change proposed that the end of grade deflation would decrease students’ stress levels, and improve “campus atmosphere.” This interest in students’ mental health would seem heartening, especially in light of recent conversation surrounding the University’s mental health policies. Yet as I took in a largely apathetic campus, I couldn’t help but wonder whether there was more behind this decision than a simple push to improve students’ wellbeing—and how much of an impact the change would really have on students’ happiness.

Princeton has a reputation for being a notoriously traditionalist University, and many of the school’s progressive policy changes have come about for reasons other than those given up front by administrators. For example, the University’s recent decision to change its sexual misconduct policies in accordance with Title IX requirements was not merely driven by administrators’ desire to create a safer environment for female students, but a response to the threat of losing federal funding. While Princeton did not face any pressure quite so extreme to end grade deflation, the policy—unique among Ivy League schools—has had a largely negative impact on Princeton’s image at large, and its attractiveness to prospective applicants.

In the months leading up to the committee’s October decision, President Eisgruber had expressed anxieties about the impact of grade deflation on the University’s reputation. According to a September article in the Princeton Alumni Weekly, Eisgruber asserted that Princeton “should be known for the quality of our teaching and the distinctiveness of our commitment to undergraduate education, not for the severity of our curve.” Eisgruber’s concern about the impact of grade deflation on Princeton’s public image is by no means unfounded. The school’s grade deflation policy has been debated since its implementation in 2004, with critics voicing concerns about its impact on students’ competitiveness as applicants to jobs and graduate programs. These concerns became particularly acute in 2013, when Quartz.com published an article on “correspondence bias”: our tendency to make judgments based purely on behavior (such as a student’s GPA) while ignoring context (such as school-specific grading policies). Citing a study by the University of California, Berkeley, Quartz proposed that this “psychological phenomenon” leads employers and admissions officers to favor applicants with higher raw GPAs, disregarding grade deflation.

In response to anxiety about these findings, Princeton conducted its own study, examining the admissions rates of students to top medical schools before and after the policy’s implementation, and found no difference. More recently, a committee assembled by the University determined that grade deflation had had no measurable effect on students’ admission to other graduate schools and fellowships, or employment opportunities. Even so, concerns about Princeton’s grading policies may have been enough to make high-achieving high-schoolers think twice before applying to a school famous, as Eisgruber remarked, for the “severity of its curve.”

Though Princeton has consistently been ranked among the top colleges in the country, it is not the most selective. Last year, for example, though Forbes magazine named Princeton America’s number one school for undergraduate education, it had the fourth-lowest admission rate, ranking behind Harvard, Yale, and Columbia. This has not always been the case, and it is not unlikely that Princeton’s unique grade deflation policy has played a role in this decline. According to Theivycoach.com, Princeton’s admission rate in 2003—the year before grade deflation was implemented—was 7.3%, second only to Harvard’s 6.8%. This year, however, Harvard was substantially more selective than Princeton, accepting 5.9 % of applicants to Princeton’s 7.28 %. Given that a school’s selectivity may be seen as a measure of its prestige, it is not surprising that administrators sought to rethink the policy that marked the onset of this decline.

In ending grade deflation, it seems, administrators hoped to soften Princeton’s hard-driving reputation—to send a message, both to current and to prospective students, that the University prioritizes students’ wellbeing over academic pressure. Yet the question remains as to how thoroughly this message will translate into reality. From an outsider’s point of view, it seems logical that lower GPAs would lead to a net increase in stress. Yet in an environment where grade deflation is acknowledged as the norm, I don’t believe this is necessarily the case. Without a doubt, the policy could create anxiety: I distinctly recall sitting down for my first exam at Princeton, and being asked by the student next to me whether grade deflation would affect our class. It seemed ever present in students’ minds, a constant reminder to brace ourselves for results that might not meet our expectations. At the same time, however, grade deflation could also be a source of consolation when our transcripts did disappoint us. If we did not feel a letter grade reflected our effort, we could attribute it to the injustice of the school’s policy, rather than our own shortcomings. In short, grade deflation felt like it legitimized our academic struggles.

The idea that the end of grade deflation was the loss of a crutch, rather than an opportunity to succeed, was clear in the social media buzz following the University’s decision. “If we are getting rid of grade deflation, we need a new excuse for poor grades,” Kevin McElwee ’18 tweeted sardonically. Though McElwee’s self-deprecating remark was intended to be ironic, his concern—that students will no longer have an easy way to justify, both to themselves and to others, their academic struggles—may be valid. After all, the change in policy is not an across-the-board push for more forgiving grading standards. There may no longer be a cap on the number of A’s a professor is permitted by the school to award, but whether professors actually feel that a larger percentage of students are deserving of A’s rests in their hands.

Steven Morin ’18 is skeptical that his professors will substantially change the standards of grading. Shortly after the University’s decision was made public, Morin tweeted his fear that “most profs won’t actually change their grading scales, but we won’t have grade deflation to back us up.” Morin’s worry is by no means unrealistic. Professors who have been teaching here for decades have established systems for grading that they may not feel a need to depart from. This is specifically true of Humanities courses, in which work is not scored based on objective criteria, but is assessed based on more subjective standards that can vary from one professor to another.

Regardless of how professors choose to receive this change in policy, the end of grade deflation does not mean the end of poor grades, nor does it mean less challenging coursework. Given Princeton’s selectivity and academic rigor, standards for academic work will likely continue to remain much higher than those many of us have faced previously. And, as a result, incoming students will continue to have to develop new standards for themselves. Yet rather than having a specific policy to point to, as a means of “justifying” no longer sitting at the top of the class, we will simply have to accept it as the consequence of attending a competitive and rigorous school. Moreover, the students who are likely facing the most pressure—those struggling the most—will be the least affected by its repeal. Grade deflation only restricted the number of “A” grades professors could award, and had little impact on the distribution of lower grades. While removing the 35% cap on “A” grades may make it easier for already high-performing students to earn A’s, students performing at all levels will no longer have a letter attached to their transcript validating their struggles.

Though the “death” of grade deflation may serve to encourage more prospective applicants, boosting Princeton’s selectivity, it is hardly the most productive way of reducing students’ overall stress. Anxiety about academic performance is a fact at any competitive University, and it will not be resolved by allowing students to more easily earn higher grades. In fact, the only effective strategy to escape this stress is, I think, to focus on the relative insignificance of grades themselves—to try and divorce our transcripts from our sense of self-worth. Though, at a place like Princeton, this might sound wildly optimistic, I believe that grade deflation taught us to do it, at least somewhat. Jokingly assuring ourselves that our B’s “would be A’s at Harvard,” we recognized that grades were not an objective measure of our work, or our intelligence, that standards for evaluation shifted, that our intellectual capabilities were worth more than the letter on the page.

While the end of grade deflation might ease the minds of certain students who find they can earn A’s with less effort, it ultimately reinforces the idea that students’ stress levels should reflect their GPAs—giving students the opportunity to earn higher grades, the committee assumes, should lead to a happier student body. This may resonate with prospective applicants, many of whom are likely used to finding, in their GPA, a source of validation they are reluctant to lose. Yet it is precisely this mindset—the equation of academic performance with personal happiness—that drives students to stress and obsess over grades in the first place.