UPDATED Jan. 29
Students and professors were split over Columbia’s grading policies on Thursday, following the leak of a document that showed that about one in 12 Columbia undergraduates earned at least a 4.0 last semester.
The spreadsheet listed 482 students in Columbia College and the School of Engineering and Applied Science who earned perfect grade point averages. Whether the numbers reflect grade inflation, the criticism often aimed at universities giving higher grades than in years past, remains unclear.
Stuart Rojstaczer, a retired Duke professor who has written widely on grade inflation, said that since the data only includes students with a 4.0 or higher, the numbers were difficult to compare specifically to other schools.
“As for being comparable to other selective, private institutions that have seen their grades go up since the mid-1980s ... their [Columbia’s] grades are very comparable,” he said, adding that engineering-based schools like MIT generally have lower average GPAs than liberal arts-focused schools.
“Certainly, people graduate with GPAs in excess of 4.0 at Stanford and probably at Columbia as well,” Rojstaczer said.
A spokesperson for the Division of Student Affairs declined to provide school-wide grade distributions from last semester. Rojstaczer said that Columbia declined to provide statistics for his research about a year and a half ago—something he said was not unusual, though Harvard and Princeton have provided grade distributions in the past.
But in 2006, Columbia College Dean of Academic Affairs Kathryn Yatrakis said that approximately 52 percent of grades in Columbia College for the 2005-2006 school year were A-minuses or above, compared to 47 percent in 2000.
Minutes from a 2007 meeting of the faculty of Arts and Sciences note that 70 percent of grades were in the B-plus to A-plus range, the percent of A’s given in Core classes had risen from 45 percent to 55 percent in the previous 10 years, and that A’s given in science classes had increased from 40 to 45 percent.
Susan Elmes, director of undergraduate studies in the economics department, which had 39 students on the list, said that the large number of students with 4.0 and higher GPAs in her department is due to its size. Economics has 25 percent more students than political science and 50 percent more than history, she said.
“It is not surprising that the largest number of students are from economics,” Elmes said.
Elmes added that while her department does give A-pluses, there is a limit. “The recommendation is that no more than two percent of any class should receive one, and it should be reserved only for students who do exceptional work in a class.”
According to Elmes, the real problem with grading at Columbia is grade distribution, claiming that many teachers are reluctant to give grades lower than a B-plus.
“If you look at your official transcript and see the percentage of A grades awarded in classes, you might be surprised to see the number of classes in which the percentage is well over 50 percent and in some cases, 80 to 90 percent,” Elmes said, referencing the percentages of A-range grades that have been included on most classes on Columbia College transcripts since 1996.
However, Jack Snyder, director of undergraduate studies in the political science department, isn’t sure that such high achievement is a bad thing.
“Columbia and the other Ivies are like Lake Wobegone, where all the students are indeed above average in their basic capacities, so why shouldn’t many of them do well and get good grades?” Snyder said in an email.
“We need to have some grade spread so that we can distinguish truly exceptional performance from merely solid achievement,” he added.
Jean Howard, chair of the English department, agreed.
"Columbia has very, very bright undergrads, and I would be against any formulaic way of enforcing a fixed distribution of grades," she said in an email, adding that she would be interested in finding ways to reduce the number of As and A-pluses given out.
Some see the issues as more black-and-white. Archie Archibong, SEAS ’12, maintained that grade distribution depends on the nature of the subject matter.
“There’s no ifs, ands, or buts with science. If you don’t know the material, you don’t know the physics, the math, the chemistry—you’re not going to get an A—whereas I feel like there’s a little bit more leeway in CC to fudge your way into a higher grade,” Archibong said.
The next two majors with the most students on the list were political science, with 20 students, and English with 17—higher than chemistry’s six and biology’s eight students, but not far from computer science’s 15.
But the humanities-versus-science claim ignores the grading curves common in science classes, said Columbia College Student Council Member Ryan Mandelbaum, CC ’13. A physics major, Mandelbaum said that department-wide grade inflation does help students in the hard sciences.
“Though grading is more objective, the teacher will often place the ‘average’ grade at a B-plus, so almost half of the class is receiving grades in the A-range,” Mandelbaum said.
In fact, one of the students who earned a 4.33 last semester was in SEAS and attributed his success to the SEAS policy of basing the entire class grade on midterm and final exam grades.
Others objected to putting much weight on a few weeks of a college career at all.
“Sometimes, people taking four classes in a semester or aren’t doing that much outside classes, like working, so things can really change from semester to semester,” said Jeremy Spencer, SEAS ’13. “If they had a 4.0 for their entire time here, then I’d be like ‘wow’ … but I don’t think its that big of a deal.”
Justin Seek, CC ’14, said he’s not concerned about anyone else’s GPA.
“Whether they have a 4.0 or a 4.3 and I have a 3.3, I don’t feel inferior in any way,” he said, then paused. “OK, maybe slightly.”
Sonalee Rau and Sarah Darville contributed reporting.