Implications of Grade Inflation Extend Beyond the Classroom

Grade inflation is a topic that has a special importance to the Claremont Colleges. At Pomona College, for example, a faculty committee recently implemented a policy designed to control grade inflation, as the grades that the college gave out were overall higher than the grades given out by its peer institutions. By contrast, at Harvey Mudd College, grade inflation is conspicuously absent.

As a result, much ink has been spilled in student publications about the purported evils of grade inflation. Some take the position that these evils are truly deleterious to students' prospects and education, while other argue that really, they aren't that bad. These articles often make moral arguments that conclude with the assertion that the students who go to schools with grade inflation either 'deserve' the high grades or are the beneficiaries of a corrupt system that lowers academic standards and prevents the truly virtuous high academic achievers from being recognized.

What has been ignored, however, is the actual effect that combating grade inflation could have on the culture that the school has. There is a reason that grades at Pomona, and at selective colleges throughout the nation, are so high: the students at those schools prioritize grades over non-academic pursuits, and these colleges believe these non-academic pursuits to be both intrinsically valuable and valuable for their students' future careers.

Again, let's compare Pomona with Harvey Mudd. As has been argued in a previous TSL opinion piece by Michael Saffron, the former president of Associated Students of Harvey Mudd College, Harvey Mudd students do not participate very heavily in extracurricular activities, in large part due to their academic workload.

Why is it that Pomona students seem to have an easier time getting good grades than Mudd students? Given that, for the most part, students at both schools take classes of overall similar difficulty, the difference can be ascribed mostly to Mudd's heavier graduation requirements In order to graduate in four years, Mudd students are expected to take an average of 16 credits per semester, which is equivalent to five full credit classes and a lab. Pomona only requires four courses a semester.

Pomona students have a comparatively large amount of freedom to maintain their schedule such that they can maintain high grades and still participate in a large amount of extracurriculars. If a Pomona student is having a hard time keeping up with one of his classes, he can drop it and still have a pretty good chance to graduate on time. But if a Mudd student drops one of her classes, she still has to keep up with what is a normal number of courses by the standards of the other schools in order to graduate on time.

Given these restrictions, and given the high importance of GPA for getting into the best graduate schools and internships, it makes sense that students who are forced to take on a heavy courseload would prioritize their GPA over extracurricular commitments.

At Harvey Mudd, this makes sense—most of what Harvey Mudd students will do in their postgraduate lives, either in industry or in academia, will be directly related to what they learn in their classes. However, for many Pomona students, as well as for many students of similar liberal arts institutions, the postgraduate lives of their students do not follow so cleanly from their academic work.

Take, for example, the case of a Pomona student who wants to work in journalism. This student's time is probably best spent working for TSL—but if her academic work is too arduous, then she wouldn't have the time to do that. Moreover, if most people would have to sacrifice their grades in order to participate in extracurriculars, chances are TSL wouldn't even exist in the first place.

For people who want to work in journalism, or really any career outside of tech or academia, the education that most directly relates to their career will take place outside of their classes. Yet the light courseload that enables such a high degree of engagement with extracurricular activities is exactly what causes grade inflation. Pomona's grade inflation is not, therefore, a mere affliction—it is an intrinsic part of what the school strives to be and of what types of student it serves.

I do not mean to argue that grade inflation is a good thing. One may believe that grade inflation is inevitable if one wants a vibrant extracurricular culture on campus but still argue that the academic rigor of the institutions is important enough that it ought not be sacrificed for non-academic educational opportunities. My point is that there is a normative conflict here: Having academics be more rigorous detracts from a campus' extracurricular culture, and increasing the vibrancy of a campus' extracurricular culture detracts from the rigor of its academics. If we want to know what must be done about grade inflation, we must understand why grade inflation exists, and whether its benefits are worth its obvious damages.

William Schumacher PO '18 is majoring in Philosophy and Computer Science. He is interested in literature and the politics of technology.

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