Everyone understands what your GPA this semester means

In my industry there’s been a ton of discussion about how to handle grading for this spring semester. Campuses shifted to online instruction mid-semester. Students are losing jobs, struggling with home responsibilities, and otherwise being utterly thrown into the deep end of an unfair situation.

Here’s the thing: we all get it. C+ this semester will be a mighty impressive accomplishment for a lot of students this year. Nobody looking at and subjectively interpreting a transcript will fail to appreciate that. If I’m looking at your transcript, I’m going to look at your GPA for before this and heavily discount this semester’s GPA if it’s anything different than it was in the fall.

For some students, this pandemic will be a minor hiccup, or even a chance to rise to the occasion and excel. Good for them. For other students, it will be such a significant disruption that they won’t be able to learn the material they’re ostensibly in school for. And if they can’t pass the class, that sucks. Pandemics suck, and their impact on people’s educational progress is part of that suckiness.

We absolutely should look for ways to reduce the impact on those students. We need to grant exceptions for things like scholarships requiring certain timelines and GPAs (like my favorite NY state program). But life happens, and a if grades are worth having at all (which we should debate), then we shouldn’t abandon them now. We should just abandon the stakes we’ve attached to them.

A proposal to help curb grade inflation.

I have a stack of midterms I’m procrastinating grading, but I’m not simply going to babble on about some minor nuisance in my own life, I’m going to expound on a modest, but promising intervention into the problem of grade inflation which, I believe, costs us millions of dollars every year.

Here’s the basic problem: schools serve a mix of roles, including signaling, human capital formation, and pure consumption. Unfortunately, universities face a problem of grade inflation. I have encountered many students who were very angry that I should even dare to suggest that a C is an acceptable grade. This, despite the fact that C has never been sold as anything but “average- simple, common, adequate but ordinary”.

And why is grade inflation a problem? It makes the signal of a college degree less meaningful. And the result is that students have to pile on ever more credentials at ever more selective institutions to prove themselves. It also leads to students turning school into a GPA maximization game rather than an intellectual pursuit. For top students this isn’t a real problem, but for the rest it may be costly. So here’s my proposal…

Maybe we should be describing the grade distribution as being like the Fahrenheit scale… 73 is just about right; sure it’s a few degrees off, but it’s close enough for government work. 93 Is about as hot as you’d ever really want it to be. Any hotter is superfluous, and besides, this school doesn’t give A+’s. The 90’s are hot; exceptionally so, but the 80’s are pretty warm. Once in a while an 85 degree day can be quite nice, But you don’t really even want too many 80+ grades on your transcript. This is related to a fact that always amazes my students: in econ grad school an A means you over-invested in a class and wasted energy that could have been spent on advancing your dissertation. Too many B’s for a typical undergrad means that they aren’t doing enough intellectual, spiritual, social, and personal exploration outside of class. So what about F’s and D’s? Well, the analogy might fall apart here, but I don’t think we need to sell students on going for F’s, although I think one or two would probably build character.

I think that if this description spread through high schools and colleges then we might just calm the students and parents down a bit. Doing that might just allow us all to slow down enough that the students might actually learn something and retain it.