Are Harvey Mudd’s Tough Grades Failing Students?

A building of Harvey Mudd College.
Harvey Mudd College’s harsh grading practices are resulting in low average GPAs for much of the school, complicating some students’ post-graduation prospects. (JoJo Sanders)

Harvey Mudd College openly acknowledges that its standards for a high grade are difficult to meet and lead to lower average grade point averages for its students; the school even includes a letter with each official transcript explaining the school’s lower-than-average GPAs.

At the time the letter was last updated, in 2014, the median GPA — 3.35 in 2007 — was two-tenths of a point behind peer institutions.

Some students claimed this standard negatively impacts their post-graduation prospects. Others, however, said harsh grading can help motivate them and more accurately assess their skill level.

“The rigor of the curriculum is reflected in the rigor of the grading; over the 50-year plus history of the college only seven students have earned straight A’s for all four years of study,” the letter reads.

By contrast, Pomona College has recently made efforts to fix grade inflation; 59.7 percent of the grades it distributed in 2009-2010 were A’s.

The HMC letter attributed some of students’ struggles to HMC’s notoriously difficult core curriculum.

“GPAs at Harvey Mudd tend to be lower during the first two years when students are engaged in a rigorous and broad core curriculum,” it notes. “They typically increase in later years when students are focused on courses in their major.”

The topic of grading at HMC was recently explored in a student and alumni email chat with more than 30 entries.

While all alumni in the chat ultimately did find jobs, many said that a lower GPA made the process more difficult.

Harry Fetsch HM ’20 said HMC needs to balance the desire to portray itself as having a rigorous academic atmosphere with the post-graduate needs of its students.

“I think one of the reasons Mudd keeps the average GPA low is because they want to preserve their self-image, but I think there are other ways to do this without hurting graduate prospects,” he said.

Some current students wrote in the email chat that they hoped Mudd’s prestige and reputation as a difficult school will help mitigate the impact of a lower GPA, but responses from alumni indicated that this has often not been the case.

“Mudd isn’t as well-known as it’s made out to be at Mudd,” Rachel Sherman HM ’15 wrote in the chat. “I was a math [and computational biology] major, and applied to mostly biology departments and a couple of CS departments … and very few people I interviewed with or spoke to had heard of Mudd or its reputation.”

Max Tepermeister HM ’20 said that he attended Mudd partly because of its academic quality and reputation in the hopes that it would help him secure desirable post-graduate opportunities. However, he felt that “going to Mudd actually makes it harder to get a job afterwards because of grades.”

Judy Fisher, director of the Office of Career Services at HMC, wrote that most Mudd alumni are able to find employment.

“We do an annual report every year based on our senior survey. Over the past two years, for those seeking full time employment, 85 percent had accepted offers at graduation,” Fisher wrote. “For two years, the career center has been cited by Princeton Review as No. 1 for job placement.”

HMC is working to expand its reputation, Fisher wrote, and she and the school regularly reach out to companies.

Some students suggested issuing grades on a curve as a compromise that would allow Mudd to retain its rigor without jeopardizing students’ post-graduation plans.

Other HMC students disagreed with their peers’ concerns about grades and appreciate the satisfaction and motivation a difficult class provides, they said.

“Getting a decent grade in a notoriously difficult class actually means something. It’s an accomplishment,” Bea Metitiri HM ’12 wrote in an email to TSL. “Getting a good grade when everyone gets a good grade is completely meaningless and is no reflection on my skills or learning. It’s just a another checkbox on my way to a degree.”

This article was updated April 17 to correct a mischaracterization of the contents of an email from Judy Fischer. Fischer provided employment statistics for recent Harvey Mudd graduates but did not make any claims regarding the ease or difficulty alumni have finding employment. TSL regrets this error.
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