Here is the distribution of undergraduate grades at Williams for the 2008-2009 academic year. There were 15,679 grades awarded with an overall average of 3.39, slightly above a B+.

A+    203
A   3,586
A-  3,951
B+  3,425
B   2,347
B-  1,118
C+    446
C     331
C-    136
D+     36
D      32
D-     20
E      48

More than 49% of the grades given at Williams are some form of A. Recall Peter N. Siniawer’s ’97 thesis: “When A=average : the origins and economic implications of grade inflation at Williams College and other elite institutions.” Things have only gotten worse in the last 13 years. One of Professor David Zimmerman’s students ought to write a senior thesis updating this analysis.

From the course catalog (pdf):

Grading System and Records
Williams uses the following system of grades: A, excellent; B, good; C, fair; D, passing; E, failing. These letters, with plus and minus value, have the following numerical equivalents in calculating grade averages:

A+ = 4.33 B+ = 3.33 C+ = 2.33 D+ = 1.33
A  = 4.00 B  = 3.00 C  = 2.00 D  = 1.00 E = 0
A– = 3.67 B– = 2.67 C– = 1.67 D– = 0.67

A permanent record of each student’s grades is kept and this official record forms the basis for any academic action by the College. A transcript of a student’s cumulative academic record is available from the Registrar’s Office upon written request. Transcripts will not be issued for students who are in financial arrears.


1) 203 A+’s is absurd. This is grade inflation run amok. Back in the day, an A+ was extraordinary. It indicated truly tremendous accomplishment. (I never got one.) I remember at least one professor, perhaps Russ Bostert, talking wistfully about the 3 A+ grades he had awarded in several decades of teaching at Williams. He could describe in detail just how special those students and their achievements were. It would be better if the A+ grade were reserved for such occasions.

How to make it so? Easy! Require department chairs at the first faculty meeting in September to give a detailed report of any A+’s that were awarded in the previous academic year. That report would include a description (and perhaps sample) of the student’s work and a written summary from the grading professor about why she felt this student deserved such a remarkable grade. Discussing the topic at a faculty meeting would highlight for all concerned how serious Williams as an institution takes its responsibility to identify and reward truly outstanding work. Given those stakes, professors would stop handing out A+’s so cavalierly, especially because of the peer pressure from their department chairs and faculty colleagues. (Can you imagine sitting through 203 such reports?) If each professor handed out one A+ per decade, then there would be about 20 per year, which is about right.

The College might also actively discourage professors from awarding A+’s in non-advanced (100 or 200 level) classes and/or not allow non-tenure-track (or even non-tenured) faculty to give an A+.

2) The average of all grades awarded will not be exactly the same as the average of all student GPAs, despite the fact that GPA is a linear operator. (Isn’t math-talk sexy?) For example, students with higher grades are more likely to take 5 classes. But grade average and GPA average will be very, very close. So, we can answer one of my questions from earlier this week. The average GPA at Williams is around 3.39.

3) Here and here are some historical data:

1953: 2.53
1960: 2.67
1986: 3.08
1995: 3.29
1999: 3.34
2009: 3.39

3) Grade inflation is a major problem at Williams. See all the posts in our grading category, especially this one. Although the rate of grade inflation has slowed in the last 10 years, it still exists and the absolute level of grades is too high, leading to all the standard problems.

Fortunately, there is a simple solution. Do what Princeton does.

President Falk ought to appoint a special committee — stuffed with grade inflation opponents like (?) Registrar Charles Toomajian and Professors Michael Brown, George Marcus, Duane Bailey and James McAllister — and charge them with investigating grade inflation at Williams and the experience of peer schools like Princeton. I have little doubt that such a committee would report back with the answer that Falk wants, or at least ought to want: Williams should institute something like the Princeton plan that would force individual departments to start grading both equally and lower.

4) Want to write great senior thesis or give a memorable MATH/STAT colloquium? Use this approach (pdf) to calculate alternative GPA’s for the Williams class of 2010.

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