Nine years ago, Princeton University hoped to lead the fight against constantly growing GPAs with a policy of "grade deflation," which set a suggested cap on the number of A's in a class. The plan didn't catch on, and now Princeton appears to be backtracking.
Newly initiated Princeton President Chris Eisgruber announced today that the Ivy League university would create a faculty committee to review the school's grade deflation policy, in which faculty are advised to cap A grades at 35 percent of students. Despite touting its effects on stabilizing grading, Eisgruber noted some of the policy's issues in a statement. "Yet concerns persist that the grading policy may have had unintended impacts upon the undergraduate academic experience that are not consistent with our broader educational goals," he wrote. In addition, he questioned some of the central ideas of the policy, such as whether "numerical targets" were necessary to achieving better feedback on student work.
Eisgruber was quick to mention that these types of reviews happen about once a decade and are ordinary procedure. Still, a number of factors do seem to put the plan's status up in the air. Gone are the policy's key formulators, the retired former president Shirley Tilghman and dean Nancy Malkiel. At the time, Princeton had hoped to be a trendsetter in the grade deflation issue when it enacted its policy. Since then, though, no other Ivy League institutions followed suit, and it remains a spot of contention among Princeton's students. Yale considered moving toward a grade deflation policy last spring, but postponed a vote partly because of student protests.
There's a reason students don't like the policy — the lower GPAs resulting from the grade deflation policy have had a slightly negative impact on job and graduate school prospects. In 2009, Princeton began to provide a notice with its transcripts that explain the deflation policy, but that likely has little impact. A recent study in PLOS ONE found that employers and college admissions workers more often approve of applicants with higher raw GPAs, and that's true even if they are informed that the applicant's school's average grade was much higher.
It's probably too much to expect Princeton to flatly overturn its grade deflation policy and admit failure in its efforts to push over the first domino in the entire college-level grading outlook. But this backtrack and reassessment of the grade deflation reflects some admission of fault, and for that, Princeton gets an A.