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Op Eds

What Criticisms of Grade Inflation Really Tell Us

By Tommy Barone, Contributing Opinion Writer
Tommy Barone ’25, a Crimson Editorial comper, lives in Weld Hall.

The only thing about Harvard that’s hard, I was told, is getting in. When I did, my friends said I was twice-lucky: I could go to my dream school and would only have to breeze through four leisurely years to stroll out with a shiny new degree.

They were referring to Harvard’s well-documented grade inflation, on which plenty of publications — including this one — have opined. Pundits and public intellectuals brandish it as evidence that places like Harvard have become more status than substance. These criticisms brush up against genuinely important flaws in American higher education near the top: its obsession with being elite, its sometimes-casual relationship with academic rigor, its willingness to cut corners.

But in this case, they are wrong — egregiously so. If they had asked nearly any student, pundits would know that Harvard is no walk along the Charles. Critics of grade inflation fundamentally misunderstand both this university and what academic rigor really entails. And ironically, in their eagerness to criticize, they defer a more important conversation about the real reason they care about our GPAs: America’s fixation on a handful of elite academic institutions and the powerful resentment it has sown among the swathes of the country who cannot access them.

Yes, in 2013, the most common grade here was an A. While the metric of "most common grade" can paint a misleading picture of the overall grading system, this statistic holds some truth. Eight years later, for many students, it remains neither very hard nor very uncommon to get good grades here.

The critics’ mistruth lies not in the stories they tell but in those they choose to ignore. To spin up narratives from the fact of Harvard’s grade inflation alone dishonestly divorces the story of our time here from everything that had to come before. As more students apply for the same coveted few spots, the path to this school has grown more difficult. To get here requires luck. It often requires privilege. But there are few paths to this school that do not demand both an estimable work ethic and a genuine passion for the pursuit of knowledge.

The intellectual fire kindled from years spent working to defy impossible odds does not sputter out upon arrival in Cambridge. The liveliness of our 24-hour libraries at 2 or 3 a.m. makes it obvious that the Harvard student continues to care. Life here is defined by passion and energy — crowded office hours, darkening eye bags, spirited discussions that carry from lecture hall to the nearest purveyor of caffeine.

If students work hard and care deeply, then surely the way this University evaluates their efforts has little bearing on how well they learn. A grading system does not create a rigorous academic institution; academic rigor, really, begins with a collective intellectual spirit that forms before classes ever begin and would persist if Harvard never handed out an A again.

Why, then, have journalists decades removed from college filled so many pages with pieces on how Harvard grades?

America has an obsession with the elite — celebrities, politicians, the uber-wealthy, and also its best colleges. In a country of competition, these elites are seen as valuable, special, worth aspiring to. Pundits opine on pedagogical choices at Harvard with no bearing on most of the country because there is popular interest in it.

Increasingly, that interest does not come from admiration. In a country of lofty, egalitarian dreams often deferred, elites philosophizing in their ivory towers elicits anger. Colleges like Harvard find themselves in the heat of this tension, still exalted yet becoming a focus of the populist, anti-elite rage that has defined modern politics. This university continues to become a place that people want to hear about and love to hate.

Harvard’s placement as both enclave of the elite and educational institution raises the temperature. Education matters to people. Americans must trust the education system to nurture their kids and to form their adults. Virginia’s recent gubernatorial election, a contest over fundamental questions about education, makes the emotional resonance of how we educate clear. In what we teach, how we teach, and who gets taught stares back at us an honest reflection of America.

In some ways, the reflection of America that Harvard produces should make us uncomfortable. 67 percent of its students come from the top 20 percent of the income distribution. Legacies are accepted at a rate over five times higher than other applicants. Much of the nation looks to Harvard as a burnished dream with the firm, sinking knowledge that it is out of reach.

No wonder people find grade inflation at this university hard to stomach: It seems another clear-cut case of the rich getting richer, propped up on the largesse of status rather than the merit of hard-gotten intellectual rewards. Grade inflation appears just one more example of a system that is thoroughly, irredeemably unfair.

Criticisms of grade inflation mistakenly take a handful of letters to represent a potent educational spirit that goes much deeper. But in perhaps a greater way, they grasp a truth of Harvard we would all do well to admit. If we are to dismiss the criticisms of grade inflation, then we at least owe them the respect and honesty of our consideration — of a look at why people criticize this school. The ivory tower, tall, shining, lonely in its lengthening shadow, will not stop defining this University any time soon. We would do well to gaze outside it.

Tommy Barone ’25, a Crimson Editorial comper, lives in Weld Hall.

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