• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.

Title

I Knew It!

A smart plan to eliminate D grades.

February 11, 2018
 
 

We all have our “pet” ideas. They’re the little observations or thoughts that stick in your head for years because you don’t understand how other people don’t see them. Sometimes they come true, which brings a kind of gratification (“I knew it!”). I had that when Nick Offerman hit it big on Parks and Recreation; I had previously seen him on a brief, mediocre Comedy Central series called “American Body Shop” in which he stole every scene, and immediately knew he’d be big.  As a kid watching Electric Company -- to me, Morgan Freeman will forever be Easy Reader, no matter what else he does -- I knew Irene Cara would be a star.  It was plain as day to five-year-old me. (Irene Cara, Danger-Prone Daphne, and Lynda Carter were my early crushes. I like to think I always had good taste…)  And I maintain that someday, ice cream will be served in coffee mugs as a matter of course.  It just makes too much sense not to.

I had a version of “I knew it!” last week when IHE published its piece on Stanly Community College, in North Carolina. SCC dropped the “D” grade entirely, because it caused too many issues in transfer.  

I have never understood the D grade.

As I’ve written a few times over the years, the D grade is neither fish nor fowl. It’s passing, sort of, but its grade point value is below the minimum to graduate.  D’s don’t transfer, except when they do. In some sequences, they don’t allow forward progression. They can count against satisfactory academic progress, since they fall below a 2.0.

The ambiguity of the D, I think, is a function of the ambiguity of the C. Is the C supposed to be average, or the minimum acceptable level?  If it were the former, the D could connote “below average.” If it’s the latter, then I don’t know what the D (or the C-minus, for that matter) connotes.  Given that most colleges don’t accept anything below a C in transfer, I’d argue that we’d decided as a sector that a C is a minimum.  To the extent that’s true, the D doesn’t make any sense.

D’s raise equity issues, too. For a student who starts at a community college and transfers to, say, Flagship State U, a D may not transfer. But for a student who starts at Flagship State, an otherwise-solid GPA can carry a D or two. D’s get degrees, but only sometimes, and only if you started in the right place.  Holding transfer students to a higher standard than native students isn’t a good look, especially when you compare the racial composition of the two groups, but that’s where we are.

The article mentions that some SCC students were puzzled why courses that counted towards graduation at the community college didn’t transfer. It’s a fair question.  

I know I’m likely to get a torrent of “but what about grade inflation?” comments, but I don’t see eliminating the D as encouraging grade inflation. I see it as bringing clarity to what counts and what doesn’t. Besides, in studies of grade inflation, community colleges have been relatively immune; the really rampant inflation occurs at the most selective institutions.  I just don’t see the point of passing students along who are destined to hit a wall when they try to take the next step.

So I say “Bravo!” to SCC, and I hope to see the trend gain traction nationally. The D has outlived whatever usefulness it may once have had, and now it mostly causes confusion. A student passed a class, or did not. I’ll raise my coffee mug to that.

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