Average grade at Harvard is A-

Life is very, very good for the select few who gain entrance to Harvard University as undergraduates. Thanks to Harvey Mansfield, the very rarest of phenomena, an outspokenly conservative member of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, the world now knows that the average grade at Harvard College (the undergraduate portion of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences) is A minus.

Matthew Q. Clarida and Nicholas P. Fandos of The Harvard Crimson report:

The median grade at Harvard College is an A-, and the most frequently awarded mark is an A, Dean of Undergraduate Education Jay M. Harris said on Tuesday afternoon, supporting suspicions that the College employs a softer grading standard than many of its peer institutions.

Harris delivered the information in response to a question from government professor Harvey C. Mansfield '53 at the monthly meeting of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

"A little bird has told me that the most frequently given grade at Harvard College right now is an A-," Mansfield said during the meeting's question period. "If this is true or nearly true, it represents a failure on the part of this faculty and its leadership to maintain our academic standards."

Harris then stood and looked towards FAS Dean Michael D. Smith in hesitation.

"I can answer the question, if you want me to." Harris said. "The median grade in Harvard College is indeed an A-. The most frequently awarded grade in Harvard College is actually a straight A."

Harvard College goes Lake Woebegon a couple of steps better. The Crimson report continues:

In 2001, FAS's Educational Policy Committee labeled grade inflation "a serious problem" at the College after a report in the Boston Globe labeled the College's grading practices "the laughing stock of the Ivy League." Despite disagreements on the nature of the problem, the faculty responded in 2002 by moving the College from a 15-point grading system to a more conventional 4.0 scale grading system and capping the number of honors graduate at 60 percent of the class. The Globe had reported that in 2001, 91 percent of Harvard students graduated with honors, and that about half of all awarded grades were in the A-range.

If 91 percent graduated with honors in 2001, and the situation has gotten more lenient since then, I wonder what the portion is today?  Roberto Ferdman in the Atlantic recalls this comment:

Larry Summers, the former US Treasury secretary, was highly critical of the practice while he was president of the university. After he stepped down, he told an interviewer: "Ninety percent of Harvard graduates graduated with honors when I started. The most unique honor you could graduate with was none."

Actually, this comes as no surprise to me. I have studied and taught at Harvard, both in Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), and in the Faculty of Business Administration (i.e., Harvard Business School). The FAS includes both Harvard College for undergraduates and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, which is where people enroll to get PhDs and (mostly) become academics. The other parts of Harvard, including the Law School, B-school, and Medical School, are professional schools, with no undergraduate enrollment.

Outsiders tend to lump together the entire university, but for those within, Harvard College represents the golden cloud, the place where the most competitive high school students in America strive to enter and form the lifelong networks that will propel them into the world's ruling elite. The rest of the university, no matter how prestigious, rich, and powerful their graduates may become, are mere trade schools. And that trade school taint includes the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

Harvard Business School grading was done on a strict forced curve when I taught there in the 1970s and 80s. Instead of 4 letter grades, HBS wanted to identify the top and the bottom of each class, and so mandated that 10 - 15% of the students could receive the grade "excellent" and 5 - 10% could receive the grade "low pass." The rest got "pass." Students who got a majority of their grades as low pass would face academic review before being allowed to continue on to their second year. A few would be asked to leave the school if it appeared they were incapable of doing the work. Students who receive excellent for all or nearly all their classes were awarded first year honors, which functioned as a signal to recruiters from the highest-paying firms, and at graduation, the highest-performing students were reviewed for possible designation as Baker Scholars, an honor that required a faculty vote. This struck me as a more useful approach, recognizing that it is only the extremes of the bell curve that require identification when entrance is highly competitive.

My take on the grading at Harvard College is that it reflects the emergence of a true ruling class in America and the world. More than any other university, Harvard considers itself the arbiter for ruling class membership, a product of its history, wealth, and worldwide prestige. Students who gain admission have already demonstrated by the age of 17 or 18 that they are strivers, intelligent, and well-situated to become members of that elite. They, and their professors, understand this, at least tacitly.

For what it's worth, I found that there were almost no slackers at Harvard College. The students did their assignments, and in my classes the required readings were considerable. But there was also an ethos that students were expected to do great things outside of their classes, be it independent projects, extracurricular activities, or creative endeavors.

Still, this level of grade inflation is ridiculous. If Harvard College wants to avoid becoming a laughingstock, it ought to follow the lead of the Business School, and identify only the far ends of the bell curve.

The larger question is the matter of elites. There is no question in my mind that talent and ability are far more widely distributed than just to the most prestigious colleges and universities. What is not as widely distributed are networks of contacts that lead to opportunities within the existing power structure. The great leveler we have is competition, and the great disruptor is the internet.  While a degree from Harvard (or Princeton or Stanford or a number of other schools) can get a foot in the door, afterward what matters is results.

Still, as President Obama illustrates, an educational pedigree can take a person a long way. But as his muck-up of Obamacare illustrates, eventually results catch up to you. The great problem for the rest of us is the damage that can be done in the meantime.

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