Sure, Harvard Gives a Lot of A’s. So Does Everyone Else.

From the Harvard Crimson comes the shocking news that the median grade for students at Harvard College is an A-. The mostly commonly issued grade is an A. As Matthew Clarida and Nicholas Fandos put it, Harvard faculty find this trend disturbing:

“I don’t know what should be done about it, but it seems to me troubling,” [Classics Department chair Mark J.] Schiefsky said. “One has a range of grades to give and one would presumably expect a wider distribution.”

Classics professor Richard F. Thomas, a member of the Faculty Council who was also in attendance at the monthly meeting, said he expects FAS will discuss grade inflation at some point in the future.

No, no this doesn’t matter. It’s not a problem that Harvard students get a lot of As. It also doesn’t matter than everyone else does, too.

The Harvard faulty, of course, is 100 percent responsible for those grades, so sure it’s “troubling,” but presumably not that troubling. It’s been going on for years and the faulty haven’t done a damn thing. According to the article:

Such a discussion, if initiated, would not be without precedent at Harvard. In 2001, FAS’s Educational Policy Committee labeled grade inflation “a serious problem” at the College after a report in the Boston Globe labeled the College’s grading practices “the laughing stock of the Ivy League.”

Despite disagreements on the nature of the problem, the faculty responded in 2002 by moving the College from a 15-point grading system to a more conventional 4.0 scale grading system and capping the number of honors graduate at 60 percent of the class. The Globe had reported that in 2001, 91 percent of Harvard students graduated with honors, and that about half of all awarded grades were in the A-range.

And that’s still basically true.

What’s wrong with those Harvard As? Are they actually doing C work? Are employers hiring Harvard graduates thinking they’re much harder workers? Are Harvard students leaving school unprepared for the demands of work?

But maybe, despite the fact the professors at Harvard have known about those “troubling” As for more than a decade, they’re not doing anything about it because it just doesn’t really matter.

This isn’t particularly shocking or “troubling” at all. The students aren’t getting better grades because they’re going to Harvard; they’re just getting better grades because they’re American college students in 2013. Everyone’s giving more As now.

Check out this graph of American grades over time (provided by an article at the National Journal ):


Grade inflation actually transcends schools. In 1991 the average college GPA was 2.93. In 2006 the average college GPA was 3.11.

Does this matter?

Would we be better off if more college students in general, or more Harvard students, got Cs? Why?

As I wrote two years ago, there no reason to think anyone, anyone at all, is hurt by grade inflation.

There are no signs employers or graduate schools have any problem with marginally higher student GPAs. That’s because gradate schools and American companies don’t hire admit college graduates using some theoretically pure bell curve. They exist in the real world and evaluate people using the all the tools they have available. They can tell the difference between exception and mediocre, even if everyone’s grades are a little higher.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer