Students tour Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Photograph by Elise Amendola/AP Photo
Students tour Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Photograph by Elise Amendola/AP Photo

Some news out of Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University students get A's. Lots and lots of A's!

The revelation came at a meeting of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences last week; the Harvard Crimson reported on the dramatic scene between Harvey Mansfield, a professor infamous for his long-standing crusade against grade inflation, and Jay Harris, dean of undergraduate education:

“A little bird has told me that the most frequently given grade at Harvard College right now is an A-,” Mansfield said during the meeting’s question period. “If this is true or nearly true, it represents a failure on the part of this faculty and its leadership to maintain our academic standards.”

Harris then stood and looked towards FAS Dean Michael D. Smith in hesitation.

“I can answer the question, if you want me to.” Harris said. “The median grade in Harvard College is indeed an A-. The most frequently awarded grade in Harvard College is actually a straight A.”

Cue rhetorical brickbats from opposing camps. On one side: outrage about the combustible mix of prestige and unfairness and spoiled, entitled millennials. Today's kids spend their pre-college years being rewarded for merely existing, their helicopter parents abuzz with applause. Now we demand that professors nurture their fragile self-esteem, and post-collegiate prospects, by shielding the little darlings from their own markings of mediocrity? Not that professors would be brutally honest, in any case -- so desperate are they to reap the fruits of favorable student evaluations. And around goes the wheel of academic back-scratching.

Not so fast. Don't kids get into Harvard because they're really, really smart? And talented and hard-working and always striving to embody the university's motto of "veritas" (except for that one time in Introduction to Congress)? Perhaps they simply deserve all those A's.

Given an “increasingly selective” admissions process, "A commensurate gain in academic achievement should be more an expectation than a surprise," argued a Crimson editorial. "High grades could be an indicator of the rising quality of undergraduate work in the last few decades, due in part to the rising quality of the undergraduates themselves and a greater access to the tools and resources of academic work as a result of technological advances, rather than unwarranted grade inflation."

Joyce Carol Oates defended students' good grades in a series of tweets. Matt Yglesias (Harvard 2003, magna cum laude) pitted a bigger U.S. population, slightly-better-quality American students, and many more and higher-quality international applicants against Harvard's pretty much fixed freshman class size (plus, compared with a generation ago, more money spent on each student at "fancy private colleges"). “It is entirely plausible that the median Harvard student today is as smart as a A-minus Harvard student from a generation ago," he noted.

Mansfield is not impressed -- and hasn't been for a while. He discussed "the upward creep of Harvard grades" with a class in early 2001, as reported by Ross Douthat (Harvard 2002, magna cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa): "Some say that this climb … is a result of meritocracy, which has ensured that Harvard students today are, ah, smarter than their forebears. This may be true, but I must tell you that I see little evidence of it." Later that year, the Boston Globe revealed that 91 percent of Harvard seniors had graduated with honors. Which is to say that in terms of polishing student resumes, Harvard was getting at least an A-minus.

Actually, grade inflation stretches far beyond Harvard's hallowed walls. By the time I graduated from Yale University in 2012, about 62 percent of all grades were either A's or A-minuses. The percentage of A grades given at four-year colleges and universities around the country has risen significantly in recent decades -- with private colleges outpacing public ones -- even as students apparently spend less time on academics.

In October, Princeton University announced that it would re-examine its own moves to combat grade inflation. In 2004, the university adopted guidelines recommending that less than 35 percent of grades be in the A range (less than 55 percent for independent junior and senior work). The university's new president, Christopher Eisgruber, has cited talk that the stricter policy might be affecting Princeton's admissions yield. Why struggle for an A at Princeton when Yale and Harvard give them out as door prizes?

Mansfield -- surely realizing that losing students may be a side effect of acting unilaterally -- has long given students both official grades on their transcripts based on the Harvard average and private grades showing them what they truly merit, which may do little more than make him look like a hypocrite.

Grades still have value. They can motivate students and indicate their potential to graduate schools. Being graded is partly about "learning how to be measured" -- coping with seemingly arbitrary setbacks and celebrating sometimes equally arbitrary successes. The letters mean nothing; the hierarchy, which is reproduced in various degrees of complexity throughout life, means everything.

"In the same way that directly comparing the price of a contemporary Cadillac to the $3,200 inflation-adjusted price tag of the original Model T would ignore the incredible gains in the quality of cars over the last 90 years, so too does comparing modern grades to the C average during the Eisenhower administration disregard significant differences in the College," noted the Crimson editorial.

Yes, goods become more expensive and more refined. Athletes become quicker and stronger. Students may well, at least at the margins, get smarter or perhaps just better at "doing school." But while prices can rise and records can be broken, grades lack such upward mobility. “Unlike money, grades are a closed system,” Lester Hunt, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor and the editor of the book, "Grade Inflation," told the Yale Alumni Magazine. “There is a highest grade, but there’s no such thing as a highest price, so what happens is, as grades go up, they get squished at the upper end.”

Perhaps, then, we should simply break open the top, adding, say, Z above A and Y above Z. An A would be deflated -- three notches below perfection. Grade-point averages would have to be retooled, maybe expanding to fill a 5-point scale. Over time, and as necessary, more letters could be added to the mix. Harvard could transform the blunt, mass-distributed, undifferentiated A into a conveyor of discernment.

Things change: Less than a decade ago, a score of 1600 on the SAT was perfection. Now -- with a third section on writing, and 800 more possible points, added -- it's somewhat mediocre (63rd percentile). Perhaps the fate of the A should be the same. We may need to inflate our measures of academic progress to keep inflation from rendering them obsolete.

(Zara Kessler is an assistant editor and producer for Bloomberg View. Follow her on Twitter.)