More on Grade Inflation:

The recent discussion reminded me of Justice Blackmun's law school transcript, which I saw in Linda Greenhouse's Becoming Justice Blackmun (p. 12). The grades of the future Supreme Court Justice, Harvard Law '32:

  • 2 As.

  • 4 Bs.

  • 8 Cs.

  • 3 Ds.

But before folks start up with the snide comments, note that this put him just shy of the top 25% of the class (120th out of 451).

Jason Fliegel (mail):
When I was in law school, I took great comfort from a line from an Earl Warren biography that someone showed me: "Earl Warren was, by all accounts, a mediocre student." I figure if I do half as well as Earl, I'm doing OK with my life.
6.8.2006 7:39pm
Joel B. (mail):
Life's changed so much, wouldn't it be nice if C actually just meant average? Unfortunately...many universities would be appalled at a 2.0 average and you'd be looking at academic standards issues.

Oh well, just goes to show, inflation corrodes value.
6.8.2006 7:43pm
At Lewis &Clark Law School the average grade is a B-. My understanding is that the Professor has to get special permission to give the class an average grade greater than 2.9, and that such permission is rarely requested or given. The school also will give out class ranking information, with specific ranks for the top quarter, and a range for the rest. And, if I'm not mistaken, one can graduate with a GPA of 2.0 or above.
6.8.2006 7:46pm
JLR (mail):
The fact that Justice Blackmun got those grades at Harvard Law would seem to play a key role when drawing conclusions from his transcript. Independent of any grade inflation over the last 75 some-odd years, being in the top half of (or even perhaps just graduating from) a law school like Harvard gives one excellent career prospects.
6.8.2006 7:51pm
Christopher Cooke (mail):
Times have certainly changed at Harvard since Justice Blackmun was a student.

I can say, from having interviewed dozens upon dozens of law school students when I was an associate for several years at a very large--more than 1000 lawyers---corporate law firm, the big firm perception was that grade inflation generally followed the prestige of the school (US News &WR rankings), with the higher ranking schools have more grade inflation.

The disparate grading systems at law schools meant, for the "summer associate" program, that we didn't hire someone primarily based on his or her grades, but we did use (1) poor grades, at top schools and second tier schools, to reject people out of hand (no interviews offered); (2) truly exceptional grades from less prestigious schools to offer interviews to students who otherwise might not get in the door; and (3) high class rankings or designations (magna cum laude, etc.) of students at top law schools to decide whom we really wanted to pursue as a candidate. However, if an applicant blew the interview, or showed poor judgment while he or she was a summer associate, the candidate was doomed, regardless of the candidate's grades and the prestige of the candidate's law school.
6.8.2006 8:19pm
Frank Drackmann (mail):
General George Custer finished dead last in his class of 34 at West Point in 1861, if it wasn't for the Civil War he probably wouldn't have graduated. Of course he didn't do too well in the practical exam at the Little Big Horn in 1876.
6.8.2006 9:18pm
Paul McKaskle (mail):
Custer may have had an end of career which reflected his mediocre grades, but it isn't always the case. Also at the very bottom of the class--the "anchorman" is the U.S. Naval Academy term--was Admiral of the Fleet "Bull" Halsey, who contributed greatly to the demise of the Japanese Navy during WWII.

Further, outside the hallowed halls of 1000+ or even 100+ law firms, professorships and clerkships, grades are not always a good predictor of success. I had a classmate who was probably exaggerating when he claimed to be in the top half of the bottom quarter of the class--but he had a remarkable career as a public defender. His talent wasn't in exam taking, but in establishing rapport with juries. He got a lot of clients off.
6.8.2006 9:57pm
llamasex (mail) (www):
Did it ever occur to you that we are just smarter these days???
6.8.2006 10:04pm
Frank Drackmann (mail):
As a 62 in a class of 67 graduate, I've always liked Custer. He actually did pretty well in the war of Northern Aggression where he got promoted to General.
6.8.2006 10:15pm
my goodness. Justice Blankman's grades when compared to his successful career gives me hope that I can make it!
Thanks for the post.

LLamasex--we may be not necessarily smarter, but probably more competitive and as a result, work harder than back in the 30s.
6.8.2006 10:17pm
uh.. I mean "Blackmun." I Better lay off that bottle--which perhaps explains my grades in law school
6.8.2006 10:21pm
PatHMV (mail) (www):
I am reminded of the old saw that "A" law students become law professors, "B" law students become judges, and "C" law students become millionaires.
6.8.2006 11:25pm
Fern R (www):
The funny thing is that I doubt anyone could get on the Supreme Court these days that was "just shy of the top 25%" while in law school. And that is, of course, assuming that the judge went to a first tier law school, because magna cum laude at a second tier school probably isn't going to get you anywhere near SCOTUS either.
6.8.2006 11:37pm
JunkYardLawDog (mail):
He only took 17 courses in his entire law school experience? Does that sound right? Maybe my memory of the number of classes is failing me.

Says the "Dog"
6.9.2006 12:50am
Eugene Volokh (www):
I'm still not sure why we should be particularly impressed by comments that are signed "Says the 'Dog,'" but at least I'm glad that the signature isn't in bold any more. In any case, my sense is that many decades ago many classes were year-long rather than just semester-long.
6.9.2006 2:11am
John Jenkins (mail):
Not only, that, but wouldn't the degree then have been an LLM, rather than a J.D., further reducing the number of classes? that averages close to 4 per semester for 2 years, which seems about right when you factor in 4 hour classes.
6.9.2006 2:32pm
This transcript demonstrates the real reason one hears grey-beard partners (and other mid-life or older commencement speakers) say that they aren't equally or better qualified than the latest crop of 1st years.
6.9.2006 4:10pm
Irensaga (mail):
Higher education today is only secondarily about learning anything. It's primarily about getting a credential which in turn, grant the holder access to the "club of degree holders." The primary perk of membership, is being allowed into the most coveted jobs.

Education in America is not about knowlege. It is about money. End of story.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the artificial, irrelevant, and overwrought standard ciriculum of American law schools.

Law School is not a "school." It's a Shriners Lodge where you learn a secret handshake, go through silly initiation rituals, and in doing so, become a part of a privileged club that watches out for its own, and passes on all the best local business deals to its members.

Grades in law school represent one thing, and one thing only - the ability to short-term memorize enough silly facts and organize them in a time-pressured 3 hour exam.

If I practiced law the way I'm expected to succeed in law school, I'd be committing malpractice.

This isn't education. It's hazing. And a high GPA today is nothing to be impressed with.
6.10.2006 12:43am
biu (mail):
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6.10.2006 4:06am
markm (mail):
Custer and Halsey have been mentioned, but not the most famous person from the bottom of a military academy class: Ulysses S. Grant. Of course, considering Grant's poor record as an officer in the peacetime pre-war Army, in private business, and as a President, his West Point grades seem to reflect his ability at everything but leading an army at war - but shouldn't the latter have been the top concern at West Point?
6.10.2006 10:02am
RE an ealier post about GGU curving: wow, I am shocked at how *easy* some of the top schools apparently grade. Yes, we may be considered 4th tier, but in my opinion we have many excellent professors. I don't know what my school's average or median GPA is, but our curving works like this:

1st year courses:

Maximum Minimum
A- and above………………20%....................5%
B- and above………………60%....................45%
C- and below………………20%....................13%
D and below………………..5%.....................0%

Other required courses:

Maximum Minimum
A- and above……………….30%...................5%
B- and above……………….75%...................45%
C- and below……………….20%...................10%

Curve for Elective Courses with 20 Students or More
Maximum Minimum
A- and above………………..60%......………15%
B- and above………………100%…………...45%
C- and below…………….....10%.......……0%

Curve for Elective Courses with Fewer Than 20 Students:
In elective courses in which there are fewer than 20 students, there shall be no mandatory curve, except that no more than 20% of the students may receive a grade of C- or below.

As you can see, for 1st year grades a minimum of 40% gets C or below (not listed that way, but if a max of 60% can get B- or above, that leaves 40% with C or below). A lot higher % than what was posted for other schools (like 5% Cs).

We don't have + grades--no A+, B+, C+, etc.

Huh. My GPA is slightly above 3.7, and I am ranked in the top 5 (of about 300). Pretty good, I thought, but if I am competing against people not only from higher ranked schools, but with artificially inflated grades, well that just stinks.
6.13.2006 5:55pm