Turned up to eleven: Fair and Balanced

Tuesday, December 11, 2001

On a perhaps lighter note, the stories about grade inflation at Harvard are getting wide play on NPR and in the papers. As the article above notes 90% of Harvard grads get honors (Summa, Magna, or Cum Laude). What is really interesting is that the article cites schools like Princeton and Yale having ONLY about 50% of the students graduating with some sort of honors. Really, people, what is the point of awarding such proportion of your students this way, other than to help them get jobs. At my alma mater, Harvey Mudd College, a great deal of pride was taken in the fact that there was no grade inflation. In the history of the college (first grad. class 1959), only 3 students have ever graduated with a 4.0 gpa. In my class of 140 students (it is a very small school), only ~5 students had gpa of 3.75 or greater (usually Summa Cum Laude). A question that has been raised is whether the rise in grades reflects the increased preparedness of the students, or the lax grading of the profs. I think either way, the school bears a great deal of responsibility. If the students are better prepared, then the classes should be made harder, not the grades higher. There is no danger of running out of things to teach people about!!! If the grade inflation reflects sloth on the professor's part (unwilling to change an established curriculum) or desire to make sure students are successful, then the systemic problem needs attacking. The duty of the institution of higher learning is not to ensure through guile that the students prosper, but to educate thoroughly. At HMC, on the first day of orientation, the President of the college stood up before us and our parents and explained that the HMC educational philosophy was akin to blasting us with a firehose of information. He also told them that they should get used to the idea of seeing C's on our report cards (a shock to parents at a school where ~90% of the kids were in the top 10% of their class, with average SAT currently above 1500). Most probably didn't believe him, but the rude awakening came very quickly. The benefits of the approach were manifest quickly, however. Instead of a deeply competitive atmosphere with student's sabotaging each other, we all quickly learned to rely on one another for help with homework, and suites of dorm rooms became study groups. Harvey Mudd graduates are uniformly successful in whatever they set out to do, and I can say without hubris that HMC offers a tremendous education (strongly science and engineering oriented), comparable to the best colleges in the world. (Of course, I could be biased!!)