A New Law of Averages at Princeton

In baseball, players’ batting averages are based on how often they get a hit, and a “hit” is well defined. Just because a batter manages to put some wood on a pitch doesn’t mean he’s gotten a hit.

Now suppose that we were to change the way batting averages are figured, so that a player gets a “hit” any time he manages to touch the ball. Under that definition, a player would fail to get a hit only if he struck out, without so much as a foul ball. How would batting averages be affected?

The result would be a stratospheric increase in batting averages. The game would be the same, but batting statistics would no longer tell you much about players’ real hitting ability.

Over the last fifty years or so, something like that has happened in college grades. An “A” used to mean that a student had done work that was outstanding; it really stood out. A “B” meant that the student had done well—above the average. A “C” meant that the student had done about the same as most of the class. A “D” meant weak but passing work. An F meant failure; the student hadn’t learned enough to merit passing.

Some professors still hold to grading standards like that, but over time more and more have adopted a very different pattern: good work gets an A, fair work gets a B, and anything less, a C. That redefinition of academic success, just like my hypothetical redefinition of a “hit” in baseball, has led to rising grade averages. If you want to see the evidence, go here.

Overwhelmingly, college and university administrators have chosen not to interfere with the upward march of grades. Faculty members like giving high grades because it makes them popular, and few administrators want a fight. One who did put her foot down, however, is Nancy Malkiel, dean of the undergraduate college at Princeton.

In 2004, she pushed a plan that the faculty approved almost 2 to 1 in a vote. Under it, the school established an “expectation” that no more than 35 percent of the grades in undergraduate courses were to be in the A range. Dean Malkiel said, “We are asking faculty to enter into a social contract to bring grade inflation back under control, back to the way we graded at Princeton in the late eighties and early nineties.”

While there is a considerable amount of flexibility in Princeton’s grading “expectations,” the policy seems to be working. Prior to 2004, 47 percent of the grades assigned in undergraduate courses were As. That figure has fallen to just over 40 percent according to according to university data reported by The Daily Princetonian. To reach its target of 35 percent, Princeton still has a ways to go, but the crucial point is that this elite institution is doing something. While grades keep inflating at most other schools, at Princeton they’re gradually deflating.

Naturally, some people are upset.

Students are complaining about the policy, making several arguments. One is that Princeton is putting them at a competitive disadvantage with respect to students at other top colleges and universities where grades keep going up and up. Suppose that a student wants to get into one of the top medical or law schools. His slightly lower GPA at Princeton might reduce his chances in comparison with a Harvard student.

Princeton is aware of that possibility and has set up a Web site allowing students to send information about Princeton’s tougher grading policy to employers or graduate schools. Princeton’s reputation is well established and it’s hard to believe that a fraction of a point difference in GPA would cause the admissions people at, say, Yale Medical School, to decide against a Princeton grad, especially since the facts about the school’s grading are known. Given the many factors about an applicant that an admissions team considers, a marginally lower GPA from Princeton is of almost no consequence.

Another complaint students are making is that the new policy has unleashed a terrifying monster on campus: competition. One student recently wrote in The Daily Princetonian, “Reducing the number of As for a class mathematically implies that students will compete more vigorously for them. So rather than the friendly competition of an intellectually stimulating environment, our academic sphere bears more resemblance to a modern-day gladiator arena.”

Are limbs being hacked off in front of the library? Have students been clubbed with a mace while walking across campus?

The student doth protest too much. Princeton’s policy means that “A” grades won’t be quite so easy to come by as before, and as they are at other schools. Students won’t be able to coast to a good grade with little effort, as some candidly admit they do. People (and especially people smart enough to get into Princeton) adjust to the circumstances around them. A stricter grading system will lead to more effort in studying and writing papers. It won’t lead to blood flowing in the dorms.

Unfortunately, Princeton seems to be alone in its efforts at curbing grade inflation. Administrators at other top schools seem content to copy Admiral Nelson at the Battle of Copenhagen and turn a blind eye towards grade inflation. (Nelson , when told of a signal for him to break off his attack, put his telescope to his blind eye and said to his subordinate, “I really do not see any such signal.”)

That’s too bad, but it might work to the advantage of Princeton grads. The school doesn’t just admit excellent students, but makes them work for their GPAs. With so many young Americans entering the labor force with college credentials, many prospective employers have started wondering if their studies really amounted to anything. Having a degree from a school where it’s known that you have to work for your grades and not just coast could be a plus.