In contrast to the recent concerns about grade inflation across numerous campuses in the United States, Hopkins seems to be suffering from the opposite: grade deflation.
Grade deflation is the phenomenon in which schools push down the GPAs of their students, thereby putting the students at a disadvantage when they are looking for a job or applying to graduate schools. The key is that employers often do not realize the discrepancy among schools’ GPAs and therefore do not reward people who have stood out from their class. This puts students from schools with lower GPAs at a potential disadvantage.
Given Hopkins’ rigorous academic standards compared to other colleges, grade deflation is a real fear among students.
However, Nicholas P. Jones, Dean of the Whiting School of Engineering, expressed the opinion that grade deflation is not an issue with which to be concerned at Hopkins.
“I don’t think we inflate [grades],” Jones said. “But I don’t think we deflate them either.”
Indeed, a comparison of the average undergraduate GPA at Hopkins and the corresponding GPAs at peer institutions suggests a lack of grade inflation at Hopkins. In 2007, Brown University had an average undergraduate GPA of 3.61. Dartmouth College and Duke University had averages of 3.42 and 3.44 respectively in 2007.
In contrast, the average undergraduate GPA at Hopkins in 2008 was a 3.29. Peer institutions with similar GPA yields included Vanderbilt University and Princeton University with averages of 3.27 and 3.28 respectively for the year 2007. The average 2010 spring semester GPA for Hopkins undergraduates was 3.3, according to calculations done by the News-Letter with the information gathered for this article.
This information calls into question whether Hopkins has been subject to grade deflation or whether other peer institutions have simply been inflating grades.
“That’s not a statistic that we track,” Jones replied. “But what I will say is that you can trust the grades that are from Hopkins as fair evaluations.”
Though the grades at Hopkins may be fair evaluations of performance, students remain concerned about whether graduate schools and employers are as understanding.
Rose Mason, a senior double-majoring in Economics and East Asian Studies, pointed out that the manner in which other institutions perceive the significance of a Hopkins GPA could be an area of concern.
“You’ve probably heard that ‘it’s hard to get into Harvard but easy to stay in’,” Mason said. “I just hope that grad schools know that Hopkins is not easy.”
Mason commented that difficulty in maintaining a high GPA also varies significantly from department to department and even from professor to professor.
“It mostly depends on the major,” said Mason. “Economics professors are more stringent [than East Asian Studies professors] I think.”
Mason added that in her opinion, high grades are not given out as liberally at Hopkins as at other peer institutions.
Dean of Enrollment and Academic Services Bill Conley recognized this discrepancy in grade distribution but stated that it has not been a detriment to graduating students.
“Our average GPA is lower,” Conley said. “But people understand that it’s a competitive place.”
This implies an understanding on the part of employers that a graduate of Hopkins with a slightly lower GPA than a graduate of a peer school would be as competitive a candidate, if not more so.
If this were the case, students like Mason should not be worried about slightly lower GPAs in relation to peer institutions, as graduate schools and employers recognize the challenge associated with a Hopkins education.
Conley espoused this notion.
“Companies who hire here understand that it was difficult to earn that GPA,” Conley said. “And we’re certainly not known for grade inflation, which I think adds to the integrity of the grades given out.”
Conley also offered that the slightly lower undergraduate GPA at Hopkins could possibly be attributed to the size of the Engineering department, as Engineering programs are often associated with lower GPAs than programs in the Arts and Sciences.
“We have 35 percent of students in Engineering and 65 percent in the Arts and Sciences,” Conley said. “Harvard doesn’t have that many engineering students — a lot of these places don’t have that many engineering students.”
The data supports this notion, with the average GPA for Arts and Sciences higher than that of the School of Engineering. For the 2010 spring semester, the average for Arts and Sciences was 3.32 and Engineering was 3.27. While the claim is valid, the gap between the two divisions is too small to fully account for the low GPA, with the Arts and Sciences GPA of 3.32 still lower than many peer institutions.
While this may in part explain the lower average GPA at Hopkins, Conley also emphasized the idea that students should be concerned about more than just their grades.
“This may sound trite, but you should learn for learning’s sake,” Conley said. “It doesn’t just come down to GPA.”
It should be noted that while the average GPA of all undergraduates for the 2010 spring semester hovers around 3.3, the cumulative GPA for graduating students is higher, around 3.39, and more accurately reflects the GPAs employers would see.
However, this statistic is deceiving because comparing this 3.39 of graduating students to the aforementioned statistics from other schools, including 3.61 from Brown, is akin to comparing apples to oranges.
Undoubtedly, the cumulative GPA of graduating students from another school would also show an increase over that school’s average for all undergraduates.
Zach Lubberts, a freshman planning on studying Applied Mathematics and Statistics, agreed that GPA should not be the only focus but also noted that it plays a large role in graduate admissions.
“I think that any grade deflation that may exist at Hopkins can be offset by things done outside of the classroom,” Lubberts said. “It just takes more.”
Certainly, graduate schools and employers alike rely on other factors, such as extra-curricular activities, internships, and interviews to select candidates.
Lubberts also commented that the grade deflation itself is largely a result of professors choosing not to curve grades in favor of the students.
“I feel like at other places, for example, they’d curve an 80 to an 85, but here they often just choose not to,” Lubberts said. “Sometimes I get the impression that professors feel like they can’t give out too many high grades.”
The impression of grade deflation that students such as Mason and Lubberts have could be just that. Professor Todd Hufnagel of the Material Sciences department refuted the idea that professors feel pressured to abide by a quota system in terms of grade distribution.
“I never grade my courses on a curve,” Hufnagel said. “And I have never in my 14 years of teaching had anyone try to influence the grades I give out.”
When asked about such possible sources of skewed grade distribution, Jones responded that ultimately, they do not make a significant impact on the prospects of a Hopkins graduate.
“I often talk with employers and graduate schools,” Jones said. “[They] know that they need to look at Hopkins students. They know Hopkins graduates are special.”