Short Take: It’s “A” Or Out

There is a weird dynamic that happens when you attend an elite college. You go in believing you’re pretty darn smart, which is why you’re heading for New Haven instead of Podunk, and as a pretty darn smart person, you’re supposed to get pretty darn good grades. In the olden days, you heard the speech at orientation that began “look to your left, look to your right,” and were informed that one of you will flunk out.

The warning was to tell you that you weren’t in high school anymore and would have to work, and work hard, to make the cut. There would be no free ride. Whether it was accurate or merely a scare tactic, I dunno, but it worked. At my college, they graded on a curve, and we knew only too well that there was a pretty darn good chance we would not get an “A.” But then, I didn’t go to Yale.

Nearly 80 percent of all grades given to undergraduates at Yale last academic year were A’s or A minuses, part of a sharp increase that began during the coronavirus pandemic and appears to have stuck, according to a new report.

The findings have frustrated some students, alumni and professors. What does excellence mean at Yale, they wonder, if most students get the equivalent of “excellent” in almost every class?

The effect of everybody getting an A is one thing, but why would any prof do such a thing? There are a host of reasons, running the gamut of academics who believe that this is some sort of kindness toward students or that grades are violence, to those who have neither the time nor patience to hear the whining and complaining from students and parents about their less than exemplary grade. “But you ruined my li’l darlin’s life!!!”

In one sense, this is a fully anticipated outgrowth of conflating academia with consumerism, that students are consumers paying for an education and if colleges want to keep selling their grossly overpriced product, they need to deliver what their consumers want. Academics aren’t scholars, but sales clerks delivering the goods.

But that wouldn’t stop professors who refused to succumb to the whims of whiners, who believed that  grade should reflect accomplishment rather than showing up and turning in assignments on time. So why are they not bringing down the cum?

There is a secondary dynamic happening on campus that creates an incentive for academics not to piss off the customers. Be a tough grader and students rate you poorly. Get rated poorly and students don’t take your class (because what sort of idiot Ely wants to get a [shudder] B?!?), and if students don’t enroll in your class, guess who’s out of a job? It may mean not getting tenure. It may mean being excessed. It may mean being shelved. Nobody needs a prof without students.

It’s not only the school enjoying that sweet, sweet tuition, whether it comes from parents’ pockets or students’ loan agreements, but it’s the prof who knows that he’s ill-equipped to get a job in the real world because he can’t actually do anything and couldn’t tolerate the pressure to manage in a working world where you have to work all day long, whose most certain path to success is to hand out A’s like candy.

So what does a grade from Yale mean these days? If it’s below an A, it means you had to really suck in the course or the prof hated you. Of course, there are some schools and majors where grades are still real, but that puts their students at a disadvantage in the job market since employers aren’t nearly as astute about which schools give real grades and which are Yale-like. But then, that’s another lesson rarely taught in college anymore, that life can be pretty darn unfair.

13 thoughts on “Short Take: It’s “A” Or Out

  1. jfjoyner3

    Curious … is this phenomenon occurring primarily in “humanities” or is it across the board (e.g., finance, engineering)?

    p.s. My son is working hard in Death Valley (“Clempson”) to earn Bs and Cs in calculus. No one there is giving away A’s as best I can tell. But, who knows, his lower grades might be the result of making a girl cry right after calculus class. She chased him down and chastised him for calling himself “retarded.” He told her to mind her own f****ing business. He called me immediately to give me a heads up in case he got expelled. The word sounds mean but, being a Carolinas redneck, I admit I was proud of his response.

    1. RJT

      It’s certainly not everywhere. My son is a freshman at Texas A&M and I can assure you they are prepared to deliver the full alphabet in the engineering school. As they should.

      1. Rojas

        Over the weekend I attended a ceremony at a large west Texas cattle college. During the president’s speech he about broke his arm patting himself on the back citing some stats on increased graduation rates over the last six years. I couldn’t believe he went there. I found the comments disqualifying.

      2. Kacie

        Same with my son. His classes had names like real analysis, measure theory, graph theory, and other classes where I didn’t even know what the subject was, much less one iota of the content. Those professors would be willing to give anyone an F. Made him feel he really earned his degree.

    2. Elpey P.

      He sounds like he’s got a good head on his shoulders, but to be fair to her side of the story…were women and children present?


      My granddaughter had to bust her ass to get on the Dean’s List and for that Summa Cum Laud degree. They don’t give away degrees at Clempson Cow College, you have to earn them

  2. RCJP

    Good news! Now the kids who graduate from Oregon high schools without being able to read or do math will be able to get As at Yale!

  3. Anonymous Coward

    From recent news items it appears the only low grades at the Ivys are Jewish students dinged by woke professors because of Israel. An Ivy League degree has become debased currency signifying in group clout rather than competence.
    Real schools teaching real stuff seem to grade realistically, many of my son’s state university engineering classmates flunked out or took five years.

    1. SHG Post author

      I haven’t seen anything about Jewish students getting lower grades. If this isn’t true, please save it for reddit.

      1. Dan H

        Apologies for furthering the Reddit vibe but I was going to “joke” that getting less than an “A” must mean that the student had some sort of conservative or contrarian point of view as it appears that marching in POV lockstep is the new diversity. Apologies for diverging from the point.

        To the main point, this all seems so predictable for the colleges that chose this path of appeasing rather than challenging students. It has been astonishing to see the good will and esteem that the Ivies used to be held in, plummet like a rock. It feels like if there is no correction that this will seriously effect the cache in hiring that these institutions used to command. I’m also aware that because of the very deep institutional absorption of the Ivies, this reckoning might never actually occur and so it will go on.

  4. phv3773

    Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
    When I was in college in the late 1960s, there was a lot of talk and some action about changing to pass/fail grading for electives or even for all courses. The reasons were the same as mentioned above: students, graduate schools and employers were all more interested in the grade than in the accomplishment.

  5. Jeffrey Gamso

    Of course in Lake Wobegon . . . .

    Grade inflation has been a thing at universities for decades. The day of what used to be known as “the gentleman’s C” pretty much evaporated by the mid 60s.

    Back in the day when I was teaching English, there were students who never showed up did none of the work. . No choice but to give them Fs. My take then is that those students devalued the Fs of those who actually earned them. But it led some folks to give Ds the failing-but-at-least-they-showed-up/made-some-effort . Which made D Students C students. And on up the ladder.

  6. Erik H

    I agree that this is a huge problem. Some schools just use pass/fail or have no grades, which at least seems more honest.

    Fortunately, the hard sciences tend to still give some bad grades, because they are important signals to students (re advancement and career choice) and grad schools (re competence.) There are few organic chemistry classes with an A- average, I suspect.

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