Sparked by our conversation about grade inflation at Williams, I will be reviewing different aspects of Princeton’s grading policy at noon each day this week.

The major concern expressed by students and others against a policy of stopping and reversing grade inflation is that it hurts students in the competition for post-graduation opportunities. Lower grades at Princeton, on average, means less success for Princeton students (even though they are just as smart and work just as hard as, say, Yale/Harvard students) in applying to medical/law/business schools, fellowship awards and private sector companies. Princeton addresses these concerned in detail:

What’s happening to the fortunes of Princeton students in the job market and in admission to graduate and professional schools?

Based on the record thus far, we can report with a high degree of confidence that Princeton students are not being disadvantaged by the new grading policy.

… [Endless details]

We will, of course, continue in the years to come to track carefully the fortunes of Princetonians in the various external marketplaces in which they compete for jobs and graduate and professional school admissions. At present, with all caveats taken into account, and all limits in the data acknowledged, we find that Princeton undergraduates continue to be highly successful, as they were before the grading policy was instituted.

See the link for all the messy numbers. Needless to say, students with concerns about the policy should demand transparency as to where these numbers come from. The Princeton Administration has every reason to spin things a certain way. But, big picture, I believe these results, especially when it comes to elite choices. Harvard Medical School has always taken about 10 Princeton students. It continues to take about 10 Princeton students, they just have (slightly) lower grades than before. If HMS ever stopped taking about 10 Princeton students, Princeton would vociferously complain and, probably, be able to fix things.

The real damage, to the extent it occurs, does not happen at Harvard. It happens at Nowhere State Medical School which has a strict admissions criteria that is based on GPA, with no allowance made for Princeton’s stricter grading, relative to Harvard/Yale. If I were a Princeton student looking for damaging stories of the ill effects of the new policy, that is where I would focus.

Derek Catsam, among others, argues that this is a major concern. But how many students per year does this effect (either at Princeton now or at Williams in the future, if we established a similar policy)? My guess is very, very few, and all the data supplied by Princeton supports that belief. Very few Williams student both a) Apply to places with (stupid) GPA cut-offs/weighting rules and b) Are on the cusp of acceptance, so that a change in policy moves them from acceptance to rejection. Moreover, almost all those students have other options. They have, for example, applied to 8 law schools. This policy change might cause them to get rejected from school number 3 in the list, but then they still get into school number 4.

The net harm in such a drop is small because, once you fall out of the top tier in any area, the differences among the other options don’t matter as much. If ending grade inflation caused fewer students to be accepted in Harvard Business School, the Princeton would be right to worry. If, on the other hand, the number of students at HBS stays the same, but a handful (?) of students are forced to go to the University of Minnesota (rank 24) instead of Ohio State (rank 21) because Ohio State does not account for the fact that grade inflation is lower at Princeton, then who really cares? Not the Princeton faculty.

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