In the graduating class of 2001 at Harvard University, 91 percent of students achieved some degree of academic honors ranging from the merely meritorious cum laude to the stratospheric summa cum laude.
At first glance, academic distinction so widespread would seem to be akin to virtually every Major League Baseball player making an appearance in the All-Star Game or the vast bulk of soldiers at the conclusion of basic training being chosen for the Army's elite Delta Force. The three situations are hardly comparable, for, as much as it pains those people in the academic world who deplore grade inflation, the students who are accepted at America's top private universities are an extraordinary collection of young people. So good are they that arbitrarily capping the number of honors degrees conferred just because the percentages seem high would be like placing quotas on medals for bravery in battles where valor is commonplace.
In a two-part article in The Boston Globe in early October, reporter Patrick Healy kicked off the debate by referring to the explosion in the number of A grades 51 percent of all course grades for students last year as "Harvard's dirty little secret." He depicted America's premier university as "the laughingstock of the Ivy League" and quoted a former dean as saying that "honors at Harvard has lost all meaning." Harvard's critics trace the problem to the 1960s and 1970s when two trends converged.
The first was the need for students to maintain high averages to avoid the draft during the Vietnam War. The second was the influx of the first sizable numbers of minority students, most of whom had not attended prep school or one of the nation's top-notch suburban high schools. For both draft-vulnerable students and those from substandard urban high schools, many compassionate faculty members felt obliged to confer high grades. I know this was done at universities beyond Harvard I did the same at Rutgers.
Universities, under pressure to enroll black students, combed inner-city high schools for seniors who, they thought, might make the grade with a little extra help. The problem was that the same people who demanded the immediate enrollment of these students also objected to placing them in a kind of remedial track.
Cast into the pool with better-prepared students, these minority kids, especially those who were first in their families to attend college, were in danger of washing out and suffering the indignity of failure. Big-hearted faculty came to their rescue and fudged their standards. Marginal white students facing induction into the military received much the same dispensation.
That was 30 years ago, and in most institutions of average quality the standards have been restored. To be sure, a student will usually get some slack from an instructor in the humanities or social sciences. The biological and physical sciences have always been tougher. Faculty feel a little less squeamish about certifying a student who doesn't quite get the hang of the future conditional tense in French than they do about letting loose a physics student who thinks that fire is a liquid or a pre-med who can't tell a liver from a lung. At Harvard and places like it, the situation is quite a bit different. This difference might explain a grade-inflation trend that some see as scandalous.
Any parent of a student who aspires to the Ivy League schools, the top technical institutions such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology and California Institute of Technology, or the elite independents such as Amherst and Williams understands the rigorous selectivity of these places. Aspiring Yalies and Princetonians very often get launched from plummy prep schools. Some parents of an unusually strategic disposition will even seek out the nursery schools that are feeders for the elite boarding schools. Students prepared at one of these premier secondary schools, enriched by summer experiences such as foreign travel and coached relentlessly for the Scholastic Aptitude Tests are pretty accomplished young men and women by the time they arrive at college.
The competition to get into places such as Harvard has ratcheted up significantly in recent years, so that people with perfect 1600 SAT scores are no longer oddities. What you find at Harvard is not some random sample of 18-year-olds to whom a normal statistical curve applies very well. Of course there is going to be a disproportionate number of honors students, and no opprobrium should result.
Instruction at the Ivies is, in some ways, incidental to the social contacts and polish that students acquire. What distinguishes the top-flight institutions from the lesser ones is not the faculties, it is the students. The Ivies don't have to deal with the lowest 10 percent of students admitted to state colleges and universities, even the best. Harvard and its kindred institutions are in the business of cherry-picking, and they pick them from the top of the tree.
The $40,000 annual tuition and fees that parents pay to keep their sons and daughters at these schools would be well spent even if the faculty deserted the campus. Just the mingling in one place of a lot of very bright kids is education enough. As for grade inflation, if all have won, all certainly deserve prizes.