Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Princeton's Grade Deflation Probably Hurts Its Students

A recent New York Times story explores grumblings from Princeton students about how the university's stricter grading policy makes them look worse on the job market and in grad school applications compared with students from other schools:
With the job market not what it once was, even for Ivy Leaguers, Princetonians are complaining that the campaign against bulked-up G.P.A.’s may be coming at their expense.
“The nightmare scenario, if you will, is that you apply with a 3.5 from Princeton and someone just as smart as you applies with a 3.8 from Yale,” said Daniel E. Rauch, a senior from Millburn, N.J.
A stricter grading scale makes it easier to differentiate between Princeton students, as their GPAs now serve as a better signal of ability (at least academic ability). But it does nothing to help in the ranking of Princeton students against students from other schools. A 3.8 Yale student might be equivalent to either a 3.5 Princeton student or a 3.8 Princeton student, but there's no way of telling.

As the Princeton senior cites, it's awkward for students to explain anyway their lesser GPAs when compared against students from other schools. No two GPA systems are the same, but it's hard for potential employers and grad school recruiters to judge applicants fairly with this caveat in mind; what else do they have to go on? Perhaps Princeton is doing its students a disservice by making a 3.8 student at another school look like only a 3.5 student at Princeton. Some of its students may be denied professional or academic opportunities because of their misleading GPAs, which in turn leads to less achievement by Princeton students and therefore less prestige for the university as a whole. It would be better for Princeton to muddy the GPA waters like all the other schools.

Additionally, grades have only a weak bearing on workplace success to begin with, so it makes even less sense to punish students with marginally inferior academic performance. The only thing grades should communicate is that a student was able to get through an academic program and work diligently. It's doubtful that a 3.8 student is going to be much more successful in the workplace as a rule than will a 3.5 student.