This article is a contribution by freelance writer Charles C. Johnson.
Few issues arouse so much interest as Barack Obama’s grades. Everyone from Jodi Kantor, columnist for the New York Times, to David Maraniss of the Washington Post to Donald Trump has weighed in on what they are or might be. Despite the interest, however, we still don’t know what they are -- Obama has not yet released his academic records from Occidental (1979-1981), Columbia (1981-1983), or Harvard Law School (1988-1991).
Theories abound as to why, but one that has largely been ignored is that maybe they’re hidden because they reveal Barack Obama was entirely average. How so? New research into the Occidental and Columbia archives by TheBlaze shows that Obama transferred from Occidental during a time of rampant grade inflation and entered Columbia during one of the easiest years to transfer in recent memory.
Newspaper accounts from Occidental show grade inflation was rampant for the years 1977-1981, the year that Barack Obama transferred to Columbia. It was so bad that, according to the student newspaper at the time, the dean of faculty had to intervene in the fall of 1981. (Barack Obama transferred in the spring of 1981 as a sophomore, meaning he would have enrolled.)
During that five-year period, “average GPAs ran 3.11, 3.07, 3.01, 3.08 and 3.08, respectively,” wrote Michael Bruce Abelson for The Occidental on February 19, 1982. “A statistical study by Dean of Faculty James England printed in this month’s [February] edition of the Faculty Newsletter, assails the college’s rising grade point average and makes a direct appeal to faculty members to reconsider the basis upon which grades are given.”
To put these high GPAs in perspective, consider that were Occidental College’s entire student population to apply to Columbia College in ’81, half would have had sufficient GPAs to be admitted at the New York Ivy League school.
The only reason that is possible, however, is because Columbia’s transfer student standards during that same period were very low. At Columbia, the quality of the transfer student had declined so much so that the average admitted transfer student’s GPA was a meager 3.0 and the average SAT score an 1100 (out of a possible 1600).
Jeremy Feldman, a student newspaper writer at Columbia, documented the lower standards in a Nov. 18, 1981 and quoted admissions officials: “On paper at least, the quality of the students accepted [as transfers] has declined along with the number of applicants, the officials say.” (Columbia Spectator, “Tight Housing Discourages Transfer Applications to CC)
Feldman, quoting Robert Boatti, Assistant Dean of Admissions, as well as the former college Dean Arnold Collery, continued:
Boatti also attributed the drop in transfer application to the College’s policy of requiring transfer students to take courses in its core curriculum and to the limited availability of financial aid for them.
He added a “majority” of the transfers come here from college in the New York area. Many come from community colleges, rather than the nation’s top schools.
In grades and other indicators of academic performance, the crop of transfer applicants “doesn’t stand out the way they did before,” [Dean Arnold] Collery said.
Boatti confirmed Dean Collery’s observations:
Among accepted transfer students, the average combined math and verbal score on the Scholastic Aptitude Test is a 1,100 and their grade-point average at their former schools is about 3.0, Boatti said.
The freshman class at the College had a combined SAT score more than 100 points higher.
Only 450 students applied to transfer to Columbia in 1981 and sixty-seven were admitted, according to the Columbia Spectator, compared to 650 applicants just four years before.
Interestingly, Obama’s GPA may not have mattered to get into Columbia at all.
“GPAs were dropped from student transcripts [at Occidental] during the late 1960s, in an effort to de-emphasis grades and stress learning for its own sake,” wrote Arpie Balekjian in the student newspaper, The Occidental on March 13, 1981. On March 11, 1981, Occidental’s faculty voted to reestablish GPAs on transcripts, but by then, Obama had already filled out an application to transfer to Columbia and been accepted. Impossible though it may seem, he may very well have been admitted to Columbia without ever having to reveal his grades.
And that may not be far-fetched considering Columbia’s lower standards at the time, which were in part fueled by a housing crunch that forced the college to lower standards in order to attract transfer students.
Barack Obama did not graduate with honors at Columbia and so his acolytes make much of his time at Harvard where he was president of the Harvard Law Review and where he graduated magna cum laude. Many ignore that his magna cum laude honors may well not been magna cum laude today. Under the system in place when Obama was a student, only one third of a graduating class did not receive honors. For the class of ’95, a whopping 71.3 percent of the student body graduated with honors, doubling the number of students graduating with honors since 1972 and tripling the numbers receiving magna cum laude. Receiving magna cum laude may be impressive, but it is less so, if one in six students win it.
Eventually the Harvard Law faculty voted overwhelmingly to make it harder to get honors, a policy change that cut the number of students graduating with honors in half, according to The Harvard Law Record, a student newspaper of Harvard Law School. Under the old system, all students had to do was reach a GPA cutoff. Given the stiff competition, professors felt pressure to inflate the grades of their favorite students. Under the new system, only the top ten percent of students received magna cum laude. (Victoria Kuohung, “Class of ’99 May Find Honors Harder to Earn,” Harvard Law Record, February 16, 1996).
What does this all mean? Ultimately, given the grade inflation of the time at all three institutions Obama attended, the larger story isn’t about Barack Obama’s grades, but his courses and the radical professors who taught them.