Everything a UC Berkeley student should know about grade suppression

Ameena Golding/Staff

What does a UC Berkeley GPA mean?

In answering this question, many students have driven themselves to debilitating amounts of stress, have prioritized GPA over physical and mental health, and have often connected self-worth to academic performance. UC Berkeley University Health Services’ Counseling and Psychological Services, one of the most utilized mental health services in the country, recently found that 30.6 percent of their appointments are related to academic stressors. Additionally, according to UC Berkeley students’ responses to the National College Health Assessment, 62 percent of the student respondents felt that their academics were “traumatic” or “very difficult for them to handle.” This raises a multitude of questions regarding how UC Berkeley can maintain the quality of its academics while adequately supporting the mental health of its students during an immense budget deficit.

More specifically, however, an issue that has long been thrown around student body discussions like a Frisbee is grade deflation.

Grade deflation is the phenomenon in which course grades decline over time because of academic policies, student performance, culture shifts or even mere coincidence. As the ASUC academic affairs vice president, I’ve devoted around 50 weeks to deciphering the state of UC Berkeley’s academics and grading.

It turns out that there is no policy requiring professors and lecturers to give certain grade distributions. Each campus faculty member has the complete authority to set their own grading distributions, although departments are allowed to suggest distributions. Given the discussions about “grade deflation” that have spanned several years, the ASUC has partnered with the UC Berkeley provost and Office of Planning and Analysis to produce a data set with every major’s average GPA for the past nine years. This data aggregates the cumulative GPA of every graduating student from each academic year and averages their GPAs by major. Students with double and triple majors had their GPAs averaged within each of their majors, but major departments which graduated less than five students in the previous academic year are not shown because of privacy regulations.

As a side note: This data is public information. The Daily Californian and Berkeleytime have also both produced publicly available data on the average course grades given out per major and class.

The lowest five average GPAs during the 2015-16 academic year were: 2.8, in chemistry; 2.86, in environmental economics and policy; 2.92, in African American studies; 2.96, in marine science; and 2.98, in environmental earth science. On the flip side, the highest five average GPAs in that year were: 3.6, in the materials science and mechanical engineering joint major; 3.62, in operations research and management science; 3.67, in art; 3.73, in Near Eastern language and literature; and 3.75, in the bioengineering and material science engineering joint major.

If we look holistically at GPAs from 2007 to 2016, the data shows that most average GPAs continually fluctuate. There is no statistical decline of GPAs over time in most cases, showing that the ever-popular catchphrase of “grade deflation” does not actually exist.

What exists instead is grade suppression. The term “grade deflation” implies that grades go down as time goes on, while “suppression” simply implies that grades are low compared to other institutions. A startling amount of GPAs in majors from STEM to arts and humanities have surprisingly low average GPAs. Who would have thought that the average GPA of political economy majors hovers around 3.20? Regardless of the rhetoric about “easy” or “hard” majors, most of the campus’s majors rarely surpass a 3.5 GPA average over the last nine years.

But to say that our grades are suppressed depends on the point of reference we’re using. While it’s common knowledge that many Ivy League schools maintain inflated grades, comparing our GPAs to similar institutions such as UCLA or the University of Michigan may contextualize our GPAs even more. But as it stands, in the 2015-16 academic year, only 14 of the 119 presented GPAs were above 3.50. Among the 14 GPAs over 3.50, none of them were from biology, molecular and cell biology or integrative biology — majors where many students plan to apply to medical schools, many of which have average GPAs above 3.8. Of course, some majors will have outliers that may pull the GPA down, but if we assume majors with a large sample size of students can reflect the normal curve, then many majors will contain students in equal parts above and below average.

Historically, average GPAs in public schools have usually been lower than those of private schools. Now, as it stands, a 2011 report on Stanford University showed that its average campuswide GPA was 3.57. Similarly, the dean of undergraduate education at Harvard University stated that the median grade was an A- and that the most frequently awarded mark was an A, in a 2017 email to their faculty.

Regardless of the history of grading, what grades should represent or if employers and graduate schools know that UC Berkeley GPAs are suppressed, UC Berkeley students deserve more transparency on grading policies and more equity when competing with the graduates of the nation’s top schools with more inflated grades. Faculty and administration should also specifically conduct research on the high and low GPAs presented in this data set.

Some of these GPAs seem to be the results of academic policies and curriculum. For example, one might posit that the 2015-16 average GPA of cognitive science — a 3.10 — could be the result of an influx of students who did not make the lower-division course GPA cutoff for the computer science major, which at the time was a 3.0 and has since escalated to a 3.3. It seems likely that academic policies and a dense curriculum may lead to lower GPAs in many majors.

GPA shouldn’t be tied to self-worth in the slightest; yet it remains an important aspect in the mobility of a student’s future. Each faculty member should question what the meaning of a grade is, and the UC Berkeley administration should continue efforts to support the academic equity of all of its students.

Andrew-Iyan Bullitt is a senior mechanical engineering major and the ASUC academic affairs vice president.