Students are right to point out that the grade inflation problem is in no way limited to Pomona’s campus. It has been taking place across the country at a multitude of institutions for decades.
Pomona, however, outdoes them all when it comes to boosting GPAs. The average GPA at the college has grown from 9.46 in 1975, to 9.76 in 1990, to 10.27 in 2000, and to 10.52 in 2005. For 2010, Pomona’s average GPA is roughly 10.57, or a 3.52 on the usual 4.0 scale.
Out of schools that have continued to report GPA, Pomona currently has the highest grades. Taking into consideration that many schools with very high GPAs have stopped reporting, Pomona be the absolute worst when it comes to grade inflation, but we’re certainly one of the more heinous offenders.
Take a look at the cutoff point for awarding the Pomona College Scholar distinction. In the Spring of 2010, seniors had to have a GPA of at least 11.7 to be in the top 25 percent of their class. That’s a 3.9 even. How—and why—is it possible that a quarter of Pomona College students get almost only A’s on their transcripts?
Students argue that we’re being graded on a national scale—that our grades are being (and should be) boosted because we chose to attend a more challenging school and take on a significantly larger workload.
And it’s true that private schools tend to give out higher marks than public institutions. According to an ongoing study by Stuart Rojstaczer, co-author of the 2010 study “Grading in American Colleges in Universities,” data compiled from more than 230 schools show that grade point averages at private colleges and institutions have been rising faster than those at public schools since the 1960s. The current average at private schools is 3.3, as opposed to roughly 2.95 at their public counterparts. And few private colleges—save outliers like Princeton and Wellesley, which have recently undertaken significant efforts to keep GPAs reasonably stable—show signs of slowing their grade inflation.
Employing this excuse only redirects attention from the real problem. It may be true that Pomona’s courses are more demanding and the workload more strenuous than many other colleges. However, when we compensate by cramming all our students’ GPAs into the top range of the grading scale, those students lose valuable information about the quality of their work in relation to their peers.
A more effective system would grade students relative to each other while maintaining the understanding—amongst employers, graduate schools, etc.—that the school is doing so. Before Princeton University implemented its stringent grading scale, the administration went public with its data and made the outside world aware of its new, more honest internal practices. Rather than compensating for the public-private discrepancy internally, we should be addressing it externally.
One way for us to begin to undo our inward compensation is to discard the broken A-to-F scale and adopt something completely new. The current Curriculum Committee has discussed implementing a system where students are awarded a “Fail,” “Pass,” or “High Pass” in classes.
We agree with this system for several reason. Switching to an unfamiliar system would give professors the freedom to grade based on truthful evaluation rather than precedent, and would give students the freedom to accept their “lower” grades for the same reasons. While an A has in many ways become a foregone conclusion for hard-working students, a “High Pass” would bring with it recognition of truly outstanding work and a genuine sense of accomplishment. This system may not give students in the middle tiers a relative rating, but neither does the one currently in place. At least we would be honest about it.
Another benefit is that having fewer grading tiers would allow students to focus more on what they want to get out of their education rather than what they believe their teachers want—what would get them an A.
We acknowledge that this system will not fully solve Pomona’s grading problem, but it will give real meaning to achieving the highest possible grade.