Harvard Students Probably Deserve Their A-Minuses—And That's The Problem

A blog about business and economics.
Dec. 5 2013 1:55 PM

The Real Harvard Inflation Crisis  

A campus full of straight-A students.

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The news that the median grade at Harvard these days is an A-minus has naturally reignited the conversation around "grade inflation" especially at elite colleges.

One thing to note about this is that the inflationary dynamic at elite schools is pretty literally a case of inflation. Between 1990 and 2013, the size of the American population has grown 27 percent. The size of the Harvard freshman class has grown about zero percent. As measured by NAEP, the quality of the average American high school student has risen slightly during that period and the size and quality of the international applicant pool has grown enormously. With demand for a fixed supply of slots skyrocketing, you see a lot of inflationary dynamics. University spending per student is much higher at fancy private colleges than it was a generation ago. And it is entirely plausible that the median Harvard student today is as smart as a A-minus Harvard student from a generation ago. After all, the C-minus student of a generation ago would have very little chance of being admitted today.


And that, rather than "grade inflation" is the problem. If you go back 40 years ago, nobody was saying "the big problem with Princeton is it's not exclusive enough." And yet over time top schools have failed to expand supply.

If rich highly selective universities wanted to serve their public missions properly, they would do something like approximately double in size to return to the selectivity of the 1970s. NIMBY issues would probably prevent many (or most) of these schools from literally doubling their current footprint. But mayors of cities that aren't lucky enough to host world-famous universities know that the presence of one is an enormous asset. If Cambridge won't let Harvard and MIT double in size, then build expansion campuses in Worcester. I bet Bridgeport and Fall River would love to host Yale II and Brown II. University officials say they're worried that expansion would dilute the value of their brands, but the message of grade inflation is that the brands have become excessively precious. Double the Ivy League and bring admissions standards down, and I might even reconsider my fatwa against donating to fancy colleges.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.



The Ebola Story

How our minds build narratives out of disaster.

The Budget Disaster That Completely Sabotaged the WHO’s Response to Ebola

PowerPoint Is the Worst, and Now It’s the Latest Way to Hack Into Your Computer

The Shooting Tragedies That Forged Canada’s Gun Politics

A Highly Unscientific Ranking of Crazy-Old German Beers


Welcome to 13th Grade!

Some high schools are offering a fifth year. That’s a great idea.


The Actual World

“Mount Thoreau” and the naming of things in the wilderness.

Want Kids to Delay Sex? Let Planned Parenthood Teach Them Sex Ed.

Would You Trust Walmart to Provide Your Health Care? (You Should.)

  News & Politics
Oct. 22 2014 9:42 PM Landslide Landrieu Can the Louisiana Democrat use the powers of incumbency to save herself one more time?
Continuously Operating
Oct. 22 2014 2:38 PM Crack Open an Old One A highly unscientific evaluation of Germany’s oldest breweries.
Gentleman Scholar
Oct. 22 2014 5:54 PM May I Offer to Sharpen My Friends’ Knives? Or would that be rude?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 22 2014 4:27 PM Three Ways Your Text Messages Change After You Get Married
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 22 2014 5:27 PM The Slate Walking Dead Podcast A spoiler-filled discussion of Episodes 1 and 2.
Oct. 22 2014 11:54 PM The Actual World “Mount Thoreau” and the naming of things in the wilderness.
Future Tense
Oct. 22 2014 5:33 PM One More Reason Not to Use PowerPoint: It’s The Gateway for a Serious Windows Vulnerability
  Health & Science
Wild Things
Oct. 22 2014 2:42 PM Orcas, Via Drone, for the First Time Ever
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.