• Confessions of a Community College Dean

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Only Her Registrar Knows For Sure...

Shadow grades. Why not for non-elite colleges?


June 2, 2016


My closest friend in high school, whom longtime readers know as High School Friend on Right Ocean, attended Johns Hopkins as an undergrad. I remember him telling me at the time that first-semester grades there were hidden, and I remember being insanely jealous; my first semester at Williams reflected the very real culture shock of going from a large public high school to a highly selective college. Getting a mulligan on that first semester would have helped tremendously. I raised my game after the first semester, but by then, real damage had been done. JHU’s policy struck me as enviably civilized.

Apparently, JHU isn’t alone in that policy. The IHE piece mentions that Swarthmore does something similar. Had I known that…

Some selective places handle the issue through rampant grade inflation, but Williams proved stubbornly immune to that. (So did Swarthmore, if the grapevine is correct.)  

The article explains the rationale as allowing students from public high schools to get up to speed, and not to be penalized for where they started. I recognize that. The idea is that the academic rigor of selective colleges is so far beyond most public high schools that many students need some time to adjust. They’re right; it is, and they do.

And then I thought, hmm. Could a similar argument be made elsewhere?

The rationale at the selective places that hide grades is that it’s unrealistic to ignore the sudden intensification of rigor, relative to high school.  

That same dynamic could hold for students from struggling high schools encountering college anywhere.

Far too many of the interventions that well-funded places can support are just too expensive to replicate on community college budgets. But this one isn’t. It doesn’t require spending money. It could be tested.

Admittedly, in this setting, the test would be a bit more complicated. Students don’t only come here directly from high school. Sometimes they show up with transfer credits. Frequently they start with developmental courses, which are de facto hidden from GPA’s anyway. And since more than half attend part-time, even defining “semester” in the context of “first semester” can be tricky.

But those could be engineered. Hidden grades still exist, and could be used to determine “satisfactory academic progress” for financial aid purposes. A grade-hiding experiment would have to apply to a cohort in a full degree program, as opposed to a short-term certificate program. The students would have to know about it. We’d need fairly careful tracking of results, and we’d need a way to explain to the students whose early grades aren’t hidden why theirs aren’t. (That might be the hardest part.) After several years, we could compare results in terms of subsequent GPA, graduation rates, transfer, and the like.

It’s entirely conceivable that we might find that students who have a chance to get up to speed do better in the long run. Or not. My point is, it’s testable at minimal cost. It could actually be tried.

Does anyone out there know of any community colleges that have actually tried it? Has this been done already? If not, is there a good reason that it should remain only the privilege of (some) elite places?


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