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Columbia Spectator Staff

With finals looming, one subject is on every student's mind: grades. Grade inflation at elite universities has been a hot topic for years. Last March, a faculty forum on grading policy revealed that the number of A's given at Columbia has increased by 22.2 percent in the past 12 years. "While grade inflation occurs at both private and public universities, it might be more prevalent at Ivy League schools to help the schools preserve their brand name and keep their edge," Rebecca Chan, CC '12, said. "Parents don't want to pay to have their kids get failing grades." Faculty members acknowledged the existence of grade inflation in certain courses, and outlined preventative measures. "In the economics department we have taken on the grade inflation problem directly by having a recommended curve for all classes," said Susan Elmes, director of the economics department. "The curve helps to ensure that grading is consistent across classes. It also allows us to read the transcript and interpret the letter grades in terms of position in the class." Other professors argued that grade inflation was not universally negative. "Grades in mathematics courses here are higher than they were many years ago," said Patrick Gallagher, director of the mathematics department. "I don't see that as a problem. It is good that grading patterns no longer send the message that mathematics is much harder than fields which grade much higher." Political science professor Jack Snyder said that while he didn't feel grade inflation was currently a problem at Columbia, it could become one. "Grade inflation is a problem if grades get so bunched toward the top of the scale that it becomes nearly impossible to differentiate excellent from mediocre work," Snyder said. "I think this is not yet an alarming problem in political science, but we are aware of the need to be vigilant against further drift upwards in grading." A perennial complaint holds that grade inflation unfairly benefits students in certain academic fields. "I feel like grade inflation happens in the humanities. The grading feels like it's literally impossible to get below a B," Zhenhuan Lei, SEAS '12, said. "On the other hand, in science classes, I feel like there's no grade inflation—there's grade deflation. I think that if you did a lump sum of the percentage of A's at Columbia, it'd be quite high because of humanities classes, not because Columbia is experiencing grade inflation overall." Julie Lee, CC '11, agreed with Lei on perceived "grade deflation," but countered the assertion that it existed only in the sciences. "Everyone I've asked is really suffering in school, either due to poor teaching or harsh grading," Lee said. "I have yet to meet anyone with a stellar GPA. In fact, no one really tells me their grades." Such debate is not exclusive to Columbia. Princeton was the first Ivy League school to actively counter grade inflation, with a September 2004 policy limiting the number of A's in each department to 35 percent of all grades given. 50.6 percent of grades at Brown for 2007-2008 were in the A range, up 1.1 percent from the previous year and 15.8 percent from 1994-1995, according to the Office of Institutional Research at the school. 21.7 percent of grades were in the B range. Harvard faced criticism in 2001 after a Boston Globe article reported that 91 percent of the graduating class received honors. In response, the university capped the honors distinction at 60 percent of the class. Other schools, including Columbia, have taken a more passive approach to grade inflation. Columbia has sought to put individual grades in perspective by including the percentage of A's awarded in a course and the number of students enrolled on transcripts. Dartmouth places the enrollment number and the median grade in a course on the transcript, while Cornell includes only the median grade. news@columbiaspectator.com

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