Legacies, Grade Inflation and the Harvard Honor

Legacies, Grade Inflation and the Harvard Honor

Recently, some of my colleagues and I have been engaged in a very interesting and provocative conversation about grading student work.

For those who may not know, there has been an ongoing controversy in higher education about what is termed “grade inflation.” Generally speaking, critics of today’s college student evaluation systems accuse professors of giving away high grades, rather than engaging in “meaningful” evaluation and awarding appropriate numbers of A’s, B’s, C’s and, yes, D’s and F’s, on their students.

Perhaps the poster child for grade inflation in

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the last couple of years is greatly-hallowed Harvard where, as the school’s dean of education reported back in December of last year, “The median grade . . . is indeed an A-.”

Median. That means that 50 percent or more of the grades awarded at Harvard are A-‘s or A’s (indeed, apparently the ‘modal’ grade, the grade given more often than any other, is a solid A).

That’s a far cry from the notion of grading that was present when my college advisor and mentor (not at Harvard, by the way) gave me the choice of being a scholar (one who earns A’s) or a “gentleman” (one who readily accepts C’s).

Maybe that’s the point. I wasn’t at Harvard. I wasn’t in the elite of college students. So, quite obviously, whether I merited an A was in doubt.

By contrast, if I was at Harvard, it must be that I merit A’s, because, after all, I’m at Harvard.

This automatic attribution of merit extends beyond the four years (or five) a student spends at Harvard. After all, graduating with honors from Harvard is a resume bullet that would lend gravitas to any portfolio. It will be easier to get a good job or to get into graduate or professional school, because one has the Harvard network, for one, and because one is such an exceptional-appearing student, for another.

That, apparently, might apply as readily to the ‘gentleman’ or ‘gentlewoman’ student at Harvard (since almost no one gets C’s there anyway) as to the “scholar.” Indeed, most Harvard graduates graduate with honors . . . which raises some doubt as to the extent to which it is an “honor” to do so.

Meanwhile, the rest of us . . . the vast, vast majority of students who end up pursuing college degrees at “lesser” institutions . . . well, we’re likely to have a harder time getting A’s than our Harvard peers. Because, you see, we’re not at Harvard, so we have to prove that we merit that A. Even with grade inflation’s effect on institutions like my own University of Tampa, academic honors at most institutions still represents a meaningful academic achievement.

Of course, all of this obvious inequality between Harvard and non-Harvard college students might be fine if students at Harvard are, in fact, more meritorious than students elsewhere. If A’s at Harvard aren’t easy to come by, but simply are earned at a high rate because Harvard students are academically superior, on average, then the advantages of a Harvard degree are earned to a great extent. Who, then, would argue with those advantages?

The problem is that it isn’t at all obvious that Harvard students really are superior.

One reason is the role of ‘legacy’ considerations, which increase an applicant’s chances of admission five-fold. If a relative is a Harvard grad, the applicant is considered a ‘”legacy” candidate. The standards of admission would appear to be different for legacy applicants, given the vastly increased admissions rate they enjoy.

Different . . . and clearly not more demanding, but less so.

Something else should be said of a “legacy” candidate.

It is still true today that most adults do not have a 4-year college degree. According to the most recent census data, just 30% of adults over 25 hold a bachelor’s degree. So, being a college grad makes one a member of a relatively small elite to begin with.

Being raised in a household with at least one college-educated parent substantially increases the likelihood that one will become a college grad as well. It’s a kind of sociological “legacy.” That legacy includes many things, which might include intelligence (or might not), as well as academic diligence (or just good academic coping skills). It also is likely to include the legacy of attending schools where high school graduation is the norm and college application a rite of passage, developing social skills consistent with what admissions counselors are looking for, and having the opportunity to visit campuses.

If all of that is true of the “legacy” effect of a parent’s college education in general, how much more of a “legacy” does a parent’s Harvard education offer in terms, not necessarily of academic merit, but of preparation for admission to Harvard?

So . . . is it really the case that Harvard students are so much more likely to have academic merit that the superfluity of academic honors awarded to each graduating class are signs of that merit, and the lesser number of such honors awarded elsewhere a sign of the inferior student population?

I’ll accept an “up to a point” response. Sure, Harvard is an aspirational goal of many gifted and hard-working students who earn their way into its hallowed halls and onto their role of honor.

But only up to a point.

The advantages evident here suggest that we ought to be careful about assuming that the Harvard “elite” are actually “better” than students who do not go to Harvard. And we ought to be concerned about a reward system that further enhances advantages that, in the end, may not have been earned at all.

(As an aside, I’ve simply chosen to use Harvard because of the particular notoriety it has received on the grading front. But Ivy League schools more generally have come under fire along similar lines, including concerns about “legacy” students)

Why all this talk about grades and merit, legacies and struggles? Because there’s a corollary conversation we need to have about the current state of the American economy. And that’s next . . .

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