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At Yale, the median grade for undergraduate classes is an A.

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Nearly Everyone Gets A’s at Yale. Does That Cheapen the Grade?

A report found that close to 80 percent of grades were in the A range last academic year. A pandemic-era bump has stuck.

At Yale, the median grade for undergraduate classes is an A.

By Amelia Nierenberg, NY Times

Dec. 5, 2023

Nearly 80 percent of all grades given to undergraduates at Yale last academic year were A’s or A minuses, part of a sharp increase that began during the coronavirus pandemic and appears to have stuck, according to a new report.

The mean grade point average was 3.7 out of 4.0, also an increase over prepandemic years.

The findings have frustrated some students, alumni and professors. What does excellence mean at Yale, they wonder, if most students get the equivalent of “excellent” in almost every class?

“When we act as though virtually everything that gets turned in is some kind of A — where A is supposedly meaning ‘excellent work’ — we are simply being dishonest to our students,” said Shelly Kagan, a Yale philosophy professor known for being a tough grader.

The trend has scrambled the very meaning of grades themselves, he said. Students no longer think B means “good.” An A is the new normal.

Yale’s cluster of A’s and A minuses has been rising for years. In the 2010-11 academic year, 67 percent of all grades were A’s and A minuses, the report found. By 2018-19, 73 percent were in the A range.

That figure spiked during the pandemic. In 2021-22, almost 82 percent of Yale grades were in the A range. Last academic year, that figure was about 79 percent.

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The new statistics come from a report by Ray C. Fair, an economics professor at Yale. His work was first reported by The Yale Daily News, the student newspaper, which shared the report with The New York Times. Dr. Fair declined to comment on his findings.

Grade point averages have been rising, too. Yale’s average G.P.A. was 3.7 last year, compared to 3.6 in 2013-14, the report found. In 1998-99, Yale’s average G.P.A. was 3.42, according to a 2013 report on grade inflation.

The sharp post-pandemic spike in grades is not unique to Yale. At Harvard, 79 percent of all grades given to undergraduates in the 2020-21 year were also A’s or A minuses. A decade earlier, that figure was 60 percent. In 2020-21, the average G.P.A. was 3.8, compared to 3.41 in 2002-3.

“Grades are like any currency,” said Stuart Rojstaczer, a retired Duke University professor who tracks grade inflation: They tend to increase over time.

It’s not just elite schools. G.P.A.s have been increasing at colleges nationwide by about 0.1 per decade since the early 1980s, he said.

Private colleges tend to have higher average G.P.A.s than public schools, Dr. Rojstaczer said. In 2013, the average public school G.P.A. was about 3.1, compared to 3.3 to 3.4 at private schools. Yale’s and Harvard’s averages are even higher.

“They are actively championing their students by giving them higher grades than the national average,” he said, of elite schools. “They want their students to have a competitive edge.”

Pericles Lewis, the dean of Yale College, said students could be overly concerned about their G.P.A.s.

“I don’t think many people care, 10 years out, what kind of grades you got at Yale,” he said. “They mostly care that you, you know, you studied at Yale.”

But students — and graduate programs — do care about undergraduate grades. And Amanda Claybaugh, Harvard’s dean of undergraduate education, worries that grade inflation could ultimately hurt students’ mental health.

“Students feel the need to distinguish themselves outside the classroom because they are essentially indistinguishable inside the classroom,” she said, adding, “Extracurriculars, which should be stress relieving, become stress producing.”

Dr. Claybaugh plans to disseminate more information about alumni outcomes, to reassure undergraduates that “students who get B pluses at Harvard still do fine in life.”

But Harvard is part of an ecosystem, and employers compare resumes across schools. What if Harvard decided to intentionally limit the number of A’s awarded — as Princeton once did? How would its graduates compare to Yale’s, or Stanford’s, in such a competitive job market?

“We don’t want to move alone,” Dr. Claybaugh said. “We don’t want to disadvantage our students.”

Maya Fonkeu, the vice president of Yale’s student body, urged caution.

“Students here work very hard and are, oftentimes, very deserving of their grades,” she said.

To many Yale students, the report was unsurprising.

Some noted the divide between science and math classes and those in the humanities. Less than 65 percent of grades in economics, mathematics and chemistry, for instance, were A’s or A minuses, compared to more than 80 percent of grades in English, African American studies and the humanities.

“It is a different academic experience,” said Jonah Heiser, 20, a mechanical engineering major, adding, “There’s a common understanding that they’re kind of different scales.”

Others worried about Yale’s grade inflation becoming public knowledge. They feared it could cheapen their degrees — or obscure their hard work to skeptical employers.

“If Yale and other Ivy League institutions start getting these reputations for grade inflation, students who were already feeling pressured to get these high G.P.A.s will then feel that their work is sort of devalued,” said Gustavo Toledo, 20, a junior who is majoring in political science and hopes to go to law school.

“This obviously doesn’t help,” he said.

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