NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Can't Fail at Harvard?

November 28, 2001

Grade inflation is a "serious problem" at Harvard University, according to a new report by the Education Policy Committee (EPC) of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

Based on grade data from the past 16 years, the report found:

  • Grade point averages rose about 7 percent from the 1985-1986 academic year to last year.
  • Nearly half of the grades distributed to undergraduates last year (48.5 percent) were in the A-range, up from 33.2 percent of all grades in 1985.
  • Failing grades, D's and C's accounted for less than 6 percent of all undergraduate grades.
  • About 54 percent of undergraduates in humanities courses received A-range grades during the 2000-2001 academic year, compared with 50 percent of students in the natural sciences and 43 percent in the social sciences.
  • And while roughly 40 percent of students in large classes (75 or more students) received A-range grades last year, about 60 percent of students in small courses received equivalent grades.

The higher grades may be deserved, as students work harder and are better prepared, the study says. But some professors' generosity was driven by pressure to grade similarly to colleagues, fear of being known as a "tough grader," and pressure from students used to higher grades, the study says.

Some professors said they were in favor of instituting a policy similar to that employed by Dartmouth College, where two grades are listed beside each course on a student's transcript -- the grade the student earned in the class and the median grade for the class.

Source: Kate L. Rakoczy, "Faculty Agree Grade Inflation Troubling," Harvard Crimson, November 20, 2001; Associated Press, "A's Soar at Harvard, Nearing a Majority," New York Times, November 22, 2001.


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