When Princeton University set out six years ago to corral galloping grade inflation by putting a lid on A’s, many in academia lauded it for taking a stand on a national problem and predicted that others would follow.
But the idea never took hold beyond Princeton’s walls, and so its bold vision is now running into fierce resistance from the school’s Type-A-plus student body.
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.
The percentage of Princeton grades in the A range dipped below 40 percent last year, down from nearly 50 percent when the policy was adopted in 2004. The class of 2009 had a mean grade-point average of 3.39, compared with 3.46 for the class of 2003. In a survey last year by the undergraduate student government, 32 percent of students cited the grading policy as the top source of unhappiness (compared with 25 percent for lack of sleep).
In September, the student government sent a letter to the faculty questioning whether professors were being overzealous in applying the policy. And last month, The Daily Princetonian denounced the policy in an editorial, saying it had “too many harmful consequences that outweigh the good intentions behind the system.”
The undergraduate student body president, Connor Diemand-Yauman, a senior from Chesterland, Ohio, said: “I had complaints from students who said that their professors handed back exams and told them, ‘I wanted to give 10 of you A’s, but because of the policy, I could only give five A’s.’ When students hear that, an alarm goes off.”
Nancy Weiss Malkiel, dean of the undergraduate college at Princeton, said the policy was not meant to establish such grade quotas, but to set a goal: Over time and across all academic departments, no more than 35 percent of grades in undergraduate courses would be A-plus, A or A-minus.
Early on, Dr. Malkiel sent 3,000 letters explaining the change to admissions officers at graduate schools and employers across the country, and every transcript goes out with a statement about the policy. But recently, the university administration has been under pressure to do more. So it created a question-and-answer booklet that it is now sending to many of the same graduate schools and employers.
Princeton also studied the effects on admissions rates to top medical schools and law schools, and found none. While the number of graduates securing jobs in finance or consulting dropped to 169 last year from 249 in 2008 and 194 in 2004, the university attributed the falloff to the recession. (Each graduating class has about 1,100 students.)
But the drop in job placements, whatever the cause, has fueled the arguments of those opposed to the policy. The grading change at Princeton was prompted by the creep of A’s, which accelerated in the 1990s, and the wildly divergent approaches to grading across disciplines. Historically, students in the natural sciences were graded far more rigorously, for example, than their classmates in the humanities, a gap that has narrowed but that still exists.
Some students respect the tougher posture. “What people don’t realize is that grades at different schools always have different meanings, and people at Goldman Sachs or the Marshall Scholarship have tons of experience assessing different G.P.A.’s,” said Jonathan Sarnoff, a sophomore who sits on the editorial board of The Daily Princetonian. “A Princeton G.P.A. is different from the G.P.A. at the College of New Jersey down the road.”
Faye Deal, the associate dean for admissions and financial aid at Stanford Law School, said she had read Princeton’s literature on the policy and continued “to view Princeton candidates in the same fashion — strong applicants with excellent preparation.”
Goldman Sachs, one of the most sought-after employers, said it did not apply a rigid G.P.A. cutoff. “Princeton knows that; everyone knows that,” said Gia Morón, a company spokeswoman, explaining that recruiters consider six “core measurements,” including achievement, leadership and commercial focus.
But Princetonians remain skeptical.
“There are tons of really great schools with really smart kids applying for the same jobs,” said Jacob Loewenstein, a junior from Lawrence, N.Y., who is majoring in German. “People intuitively take a G.P.A. to be a representation of your academic ability and act accordingly. The assumption that a recruiter who is screening applications is going to treat a Princeton student differently based on a letter is naïve.”
Stuart Rojstaczer, a retired professor at Duke who maintains a Web site dedicated to exposing grade inflation, said that Princeton’s policy was “something that other institutions can easily emulate, and should emulate, but will not.” For now, Princeton and its students are still the exception. “If that means we’re out in a leadership position and, in a sense, in a lonelier position, then we’re prepared to do that,” Dr. Malkiel said. “We’re quite confident that what we have done is right.”