Princeton University  (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)

Here’s an interesting case of unintended consequences in education reform — in this case, grading policy at an Ivy League school.

A decade ago the faculty at Princeton University adopted a grading policy that was intended to distinguish between good and great work but that wound up restricting the number of top grades professors handed out. The policy recommended that each department award no more than 35 percent of grades in the “A” range, resulting in strange grading curves that rob students of A’s they rightly deserve. Last October, new Princeton President Christopher Ludwig Eisgruber formed a committee to review the policy, noting that there had been some unfortunate unintended consequences of the policy (and even “poor behavior” by some professors). The committee’s report was just released (see below) and it exposes an unfair system.  The key recommendation:

Remove the numerical targets from the grading policy. Such targets are too often misinterpreted as quotas. They add a large element of stress to students’ lives, making them feel as though they are competing for a limited resource of A grades.

The panel questioned many students and faculty in their fact-finding process. Here are some of the responses in the report:

Several themes emerged from the student responses, and we provide a few sample responses below.  Some of the comments revealed poor behavior on the part of the faculty:

“I received a 91 on a midterm exam in a [particular department] course this past fall (my concentration), but the 91 was scratched out and replaced with an 88. When I asked my professor why he reduced my score, he told me that normally the paper would be an A- ,but due to grade deflation, he was forced to lower several students’ grades to a B+.”

“The grading policy is particularly unreasonable in introductory language courses. On the first day of classes, my [language] teacher said that only 3 of us in a class of 11 would receive As. This often means that despite receiving an overall grade of 90+ a student cannot receive an A-grade because some other student got a 91 or 92.”


Another common theme was that the grading policy harms the spirit of collaboration:

 “I have experience[d] multiple negative effects from the grading policy. Because of grade deflation it has been extremely hard to find any kind of collaborative environment in any department and class I have taken at Princeton. Often even good friends of mine would refuse to explain simple concepts that I might have not understood in class for fear that I would do better than them. I have also heard from others about students actively sabotaging other student’s grades by giving them the wrong notes or telling them wrong information. Classes here often feel like shark tanks. If I had known about this I very probably would have not attended Princeton despite it being a wonderful university otherwise.”


Some students described how their low grades have had serious consequences, which they blame (rightly or wrongly) on the grading policy:

 “I had to drop being Pre-Med here because the grades I was getting in the sciences were too low. I was getting low grades not because I didn’t understand the material, but because the curve was getting messed up by kids who were very advanced in chemistry and taking Intro to Chem and getting 100’s on the exams. Now my parents have to help me pay for a post-bac program so that I can take the sciences elsewhere post-graduation because Princeton didn’t allow me to take the necessary next step to realizing my dream by giving me unfair grades in the sciences. My sister went to [a peer institution] and was pre-med there, and even though I have been consistently better than her grade wise growing up, she was able to receive A’s in all the science courses and attend [a top medical school]. I don’t even know if I have a shot at [that medical school] because of Princeton. Not because I’m not qualified or a good applicant, but because Princeton’s grading policy makes me look like a poor applicant compared to other students applying with incredibly high GPA’s.”

“I earned a college scholarship at the end of high school. To keep the scholarship, I had to maintain a 3.4 GPA throughout college. I did not have a 3.4 my first semester due to grade deflation in large introduction classes and lost my scholarship.  Also, many internships have 3.5 or 3.6 GPA cutoffs. They don’t care what school you go to or that Princeton has grade deflation. Your application isn’t considered if you don’t make the cutoff.”

Some students told the panel that they liked the grading system, but so many didn’t that the committee members decided to recommend a grading policy overhaul.

PU Grading Policy Report