Editorial: Fighting inflation, causing stagnation

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Several economics professors have expressed plans to follow new grade distribution guidelines — part of an effort to combat grade inflation, The Herald reported Thursday.  In the recommended scheme, 30 percent of students in a class would receive As, 40 percent Bs, and 30 percent Cs. This would be the norm for the more easily accessible, introductory courses that tend to have more students, concentrators and non-concentrators alike, than the upper-level seminars. While we believe grade inflation should be monitored and that Brown’s straight letter grading system can be problematic for all departments, we oppose the implementation of a blanket grading policy.

Professors of Economics Robert Serrano and Louis Putterman, who is also the director of undergraduate studies for the department, were quoted as supporters of the new recommendations, specifically because they believe it is a terrible idea for all students to receive As (“Econ dept. looks to curb grade inflation,” Feb. 7). Though students may vehemently protest this notion, it is a valid assessment and, furthermore, the lopsided distribution of As across all courses may even be detrimental to the educational purpose of the University.

Of course Brown students want to do well, and it should be the case that any level of commitment and performance in any course should translate to the proportional grade. For an undergraduate institution riddled with high-achievers, it is severe to declare 70 percent of the grades are predestined to be lower than an A. There must be a balance between concerns of both faculty members and students, and it is not prudent for one department to so crudely contrive a policy that solves only the concerns of the former.

Economics is one of the University’s more popular concentrations, both because of its practicality and its potential for future employment. Many ambitious economics students are well equipped to succeed in the rigorous recruitment process for consulting and financial firms. For these positions and for graduate school applications, grade point average is a key factor. We often hear that Brown “doesn’t do” GPAs, but that certainly is not the case when soon-to-be-graduates search for job opportunities outside of the University.

The grading and scheduling norms at Brown may work against the economics department’s recommendations. First, Brown’s strict adherence to letter grades sans pluses or minuses provides very little leeway for professors in determining grades. This is particularly true for students in the nebulous area between letter grades, where the final decision is a full integer difference on a four-point scale. The University may not be ready to change its grading system so dramatically, but pluses and minuses will give professors flexibility to award more accurate grades and may help combat grade inflation.

Second, Brown allows students to drop a course at any point in the semester. You or someone you know probably has dropped a course for fear of an impending bad grade. Though acknowledging this is not popular, we cannot ignore that it occurs. If the change is implemented, many more students may drop an economics course for not being in that 30 percent range for As, forcing professors to award even fewer As to a dwindling number of students — in what will result as a vicious cycle.

The economics department may think it has found a solution to the Gordian knot, but the new recommendations engender more issues than they solve. Before any department chooses to implement such extensive policies, opinions from all parties, including students, need to be heard, consulted and appropriately incorporated into its long-term plans for dealing with a problem with so wide a scope and effect.


Editorials are written by The Herald’s editorial page board: its editor, Dan Jeon, and its members, Mintaka Angell, Samuel Choi, Nicholas Morley and Rachel Occhiogrosso. Send comments to


Parts of this editorial are based on inaccuracies printed in a Feb. 7 Herald article, “Econ dept. looks to curb grade inflation,” that has since been corrected. Roberto Serrano and Louis Putterman — professors of economics and the department’s chair and director of undergraduate studies, respectively — have since written a letter (“Grade recommendations are flexible, reflect graduate feedback,” Feb. 14) to address the inaccuracies in this editorial.

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One Comment

  1. ” You or someone you know probably has dropped a course for fear of an impending bad grade. ”

    Also known as a B, at least at this school. Sad, considering a B at Brown, in terms of difficulty/work required to get, is probably worth an A at a few hundred other institutions.

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