How Business Majors Are Graded At Top Schools

NYU Stern School of Business. Ethan Baron photo


New York University’s Stern School of Business uses a curve, and it’s meant to ensure fairness and clarity of grading, says Rohit Deo, acting dean. The curve creates an environment that challenges students intellectually, Deo says — but it must meet Stern’s academic standards.

How does it work? In core courses with more than 25 students, approximately 35% should receive an A or A-. In core courses with fewer than 25 students, instructors may give whatever grades they think students deserve, while maintaining rigorous academic standards. And in elective courses, instructors determine their own grading guidelines.

Even at universities where faculty are allowed to set their own grading policies, many opt to have a curve. At the Washington University in St. Louis Olin School of Business, grade distribution histograms were shared with the faculty as guidelines. The distributions were specifically designed for each different program and take into consideration whether a course is required for the degree, or an elective.

Even though faculty were not required to, most opted to use the guidelines, and so the curve has become the norm, says Todd Milbourn, senior associate dean of programs, faculty, and research.

Notably, he has never heard any complaints. “When I teach, I always start with, ‘Life is all about relative assessments, and this isn’t high school anymore, so we grade on a curve to allow those at the top to truly distinguish themselves,’” Milbourn says.


Grading policies are not set in stone. For example, the University of California-Berkeley Haas School of Business had a grading curve with a mean GPA of 3.0, which was developed by faculty in 2006 to address issues of grade inflation. However, the business school has since abandoned the curve in favor of its own system.

That system does not involve an official bell-shaped curve, but the school has grading guidelines that professors are expected to stick to. The mean GPA of a core course should not exceed 3.2 to 3.4, and the mean GPA of an elective course should not exceed 3.4 to 3.6.

Kelley’s Josh Perry says grading policies are reviewed on a rolling basis at his school, and department-level chairs keep an eye on grades at the end of each semester. At Olin, grading policies are revisited by curricular committees, and at Dyson, van Es says she recently did a study to see if grade distributions were different between Cornell’s hotel school and its business school. In some fields, she says, grades were higher, but there wasn’t a significant difference.

“There’s a lot of pressure from certain industries, because they have so many applications, to screen students by only their GPA,” van Es says. “But they’re also giving us the message that they want well-rounded students who take a lot of classes, and there’s some trepidation among students to do that, because of the GPAs. It’s an issue we all struggle with.”