Professor Pans Princeton: Grade Inflation Out of Control

Carl Brooks

A UMass professor has said grade inflation is out of control at posh Ivy League school Princeton. Dr. Ruth A. Miller, a graduate of Princeton, says that grade inflation is a “huge problem” at the venerable New Jersey institution, and internal reports from the school back her up.

Dr. Miller received her doctorate in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton and taught there during her studies. She says the problem is prevalent among undergraduate students, who fear their six-digit investment in a Princeton B.A. could be hampered by the slightest poor grade and consequently pressure professors to keep their grades high.

“Grade inflation is a huge problem at Princeton, due to the socio-economic status of its students,” says Miller. She says at UMB, where students come from far more humble means, “I don’t feel that pressure. In fact, I feel almost the opposite pressure.”

At Princeton, students pressure their teachers by demanding constant re-evaluations of any coursework that receives less than top marks, complaining to school administrators, and even getting their parents to call up the professor and complain. Miller recounts angry phone calls from parents demanding that grades be adjusted upwards.

Departmental rules also make it extremely laborious for a professor to flunk a student. “You have to write a formal explanation of why a student received a failing grade,” explains Miller.

Many blame grade inflation on a job market that places a premium on high grades from students of big name academic institutions. A B.A. from Princeton can cost $125,000, and parents expect their children to get a return on that investment in the form of plum opportunities which can be compromised by a GPA as low as 3.8.

A report released by Princeton’s Committee on Examinations and Standings earlier this year confirmed that grade inflation has taken root at the prestigious university.

Nancy Weiss Malkiel, Dean of Colleges at Princeton and head of the committee, refused to be interviewed for this story. Lee Nolan, her office assistant, said that she would not release the report to The Mass Media and had no comment on Miller’s allegations.

According to the Daily Princetonian, however, the report “warns that both grade inflation and grade compression-narrowing of the range of grades given-are ongoing trends that are not being reversed despite recent administration efforts to combat them,” and quotes the opening page of the report. “Who could ever have imagined that we would reach a point where a student with a straight B average would rank 923 out of a graduating class of 1079-or where a student with a C average would rank 1078?” it asks.

The Princetonian reports, “Among its findings, the report found that the median graduating grade point average of the Class of 2002 was 3.46, or between a B and an A-.”

Grade inflation in the Ivy Leagues became a hot issue back in 2001, when it was revealed that 90% of Harvard’s 2001 graduates were on the honor roll. Harvey Mansfield, Political Science Professor at Harvard, made the news by giving his students two grades. The first grade was what the student actually deserved and the second, higher grade went on the official transcript.

“It’s now generally admitted it’s a huge problem,” says Mansfield. He says that the problem stems from political protests, “It got started in Vietnam, as a way of a professor showing he was against the war,” by grading students high enough to keep them out of the draft.

And now professors are afraid of ruining a student’s self esteem, according to Mansfield “There’s a thing in higher ed against being judgmental. A lot of professors think a ‘C’ will adversely affect the student. Giving a ‘C’ is like thrusting a sword into a student’s vitals.”

Mansfield thinks the problem is still on the rise, and says that even by-the-numbers science schools are falling prey to grade inflation. “It’s worst in the humanities, but natural sciences are coming up, because they are tired of their best students counting for less.”