Reed, Swarthmore: case studies in fighting inflation
By Kaitlin Bell
Published on Wednesday, February 27, 2002
It's a popular assumption that Reed and Swarthmore are among the most stressful and demanding schools in the country. Reedies and Swatties may or may not have more work than their counterparts at Dartmouth or Amherst, but they do have lower average grades.
While grade inflation has left virtually no corner of higher education untouched, Reed maintains an average GPA of 2.9, and only six seniors have ever graduated with a perfect 4.0. At Swarthmore, where students proudly don t-shirts that say, "Anywhere else it would have been an A," grades are similarly kept at 1970s standards.
For those wondering how these colleges have staved off the rising tide of grade inflation, the answer is not to be found in any formal policies or grade quotas -- neither school has an official policy that aims to keep grade point averages low. Rather, the culture of the two schools, in addition to a variety of subtle institutional mechanisms, has prevented a rise in grades.
At Reed, where official numbers indicate there has been no grade inflation for the past 18 years, the comparatively low grades result mostly from "informally agreed upon standards among the faculty," said Dean of the Faculty Ellen Stauder.
"There is an emphasis on maintaining high standards and expecting a certain quality of work from students."
Reed's faculty handbook provides professors with a suggested grading distribution curve, but the college makes no attempt to officially enforce the recommended distribution, Stauder said.
Analysis of grading trends shows that the grading closely mirrors the suggested distribution of five percent D's, 25 percent C's, 45 percent B's and 25 percent A's, Director of the Office of Institutional Research Jon Rivenburg said.
This breakdown is somewhat more lenient than the traditional bell-shaped grading curve, which holds that the percentage of F's should be equal to the percentage of A's, but more stringent than breakdowns typical of other elite schools.
Perhaps as a result of Reed's tough grading, the institution tries to downplay the importance of marks.
"We as a faculty try to inculcate a similar sense of values that students are here not just to get good grades so they can get a prestigious job or make a lot of money but that they are here for an important kind of intellectual inquiry," Stauder said.
Tom Krattenmaker, Director of News and Information at Swarthmore, echoed these sentiments. "Swarthmore is a place that takes academics and the intellectual life very seriously. We have been able to contain grade inflation because of our culture and ethos rather than because of any specific policy."
Both Rivenburg and Krattenmaker said the selectivity of their respective schools indicates that students are prepared to face what they know might be challenging courses and low grades.
"I think the students know what they're getting into," Reed's Rivenburg said. "I think they almost wear their low GPAs as a badge of courage. They know that it would've been an A anywhere else."
Reed downplays the importance of grades by not automatically reporting grades to students. Students can request to see their transcripts after every term, or they can choose to graduate without ever having seen their grades.
Not only does Dartmouth report grades to students, but it includes on transcripts the average median grade for each class taken.
Institutional mechanisms also keep grade inflation low at Reed. The Portland, Ore., school has a policy of having the entire faculty review each student's transcript after the end of every term, providing an indirect check on grade inflation.
"It gives younger professors sense of what other people think appropriate grading is," Stauder explained.
One potential drawback of Reed's and Swarthmore's stringent grading may be that students have a disadvantage in competitive job and graduate school application processes.
Krattenmaker and Rivenburg denied that Reed and Swarthmore's low GPAs have hurt student prospects for getting into graduate schools and receiving post-graduate fellowships and awards, but acknowledged that sometimes a lack of name recognition in the corporate world can hurt job prospects.
Reed has produced 42 Fulbright scholars, four Danforth scholars, and four Rhodes scholars in the past 25 years.
A study by the National Research Council ranked Reed third and Swarthmore fifth in terms of the percentage of graduates who go on to earn Ph.Ds.
"Graduate schools are already aware of Swarthmore's high grading integrity," Krattenmaker said, "but we have been trying to raise Swarthmore's visibility in the corporate world."
To try to counteract possible student disadvantage, Reed includes a supplementary letter along with transcripts explaining the college's characteristically low grades to prospective employers and graduate schools.
"This is our way of letting employers know that A does not mean average at Reed," Rivenburg said.