• 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.


On Risk and Grades

Rewarding caution and punishing exploration.

July 29, 2021

A few months ago, someone who graduated years ago showed up in my office hoping to get some grades changed. She had gone on to a bachelor’s program at a selective university and was in the process of applying to law school. Apparently, some grades she had earned in dual-enrollment classes in high school dragged her GPA beneath the magic threshold to be considered by some top-tier law schools.

It was the latest version of a tension I’ve worked with, through and around for a long time.

On one side, I believe that education involves exploration and therefore risk. Someone who has never struggled in a class has missed an important life lesson. Nobody is great at everything, and if you were, how would you choose what to do? Students who venture outside their comfort zones may take some hits to their GPAs, but they will emerge having learned things they otherwise wouldn’t have.

(Admittedly, I had my first brush with academic struggle in a required class. Geometry was a rough ride. To this day, 3-D blueprints vex me.)

I’ve seen students avoid, say, honors classes for fear of damaging their GPAs. They sometimes admit being intrigued by the prospect of a class that digs deeper or allows fulfillment of more idiosyncratic interests, but they judge the risk to their GPAs to be too great.

The frustrating part is that they aren’t wrong.

Selective four-year schools openly rely on GPAs when judging applicants. Many transfer scholarships do, too, often on a sliding scale. If a student’s grades slip below a given number, that can cost them thousands of dollars. In many cases, the presence or absence of that money meaningfully defines their universe of realistic possibilities. Why risk a transfer scholarship for a harder version of a class you were going to take anyway? In some cases, even internal scholarships require a certain level of grades.

When rewards are allocated according to competitive GPAs, then academic risk taking can seem like unilateral disarmament. If I take a flier on, oh, let’s say Russian, and it turns out to be my academic Waterloo, then I lose real opportunities to a more cautious classmate who never took a risk.

Is that kind of caution what we want to reward?

Deep learning requires some level of trial and error. We don’t always allow for that, and sometimes even punish it.

Some places have explored alternatives to grades. “Mastery learning” or competency-based models sometimes replace the A-to-F scale with “attained or not attained.” In spring 2020, many colleges went to pass-fail, just because the midsemester disruption of going remote was so severe that insisting on the precise distinction between an A-minus and a B-plus seemed silly. The sky did not fall. But so much depends on grades that most colleges went right back to traditional grading as soon as they could.

Historically, what we now call a liberal arts education was mostly the province of the elite. (My brother likes to say that it was aimed at the second sons of the aristocracy. That’s pretty much correct.) The idea of expanding access to the liberal arts to the great many was an American innovation of the 20th century; community colleges stand as monuments to the idea. I’d hate to see us regress, with exploration allowed only in rarefied settings while everyone else is relegated to strictly vocational tracks.

Ultimately, of course, whether that continues to happen will depend more on political and economic circumstances than anything one college does. In a healthy economy, it’s easy enough to make a decent living that academic risk taking need not equate to economic risk taking. In a polarized economy, it does. That’s a symptom of a much larger problem.

Still, it pained me to see that student come into my office, afraid that an academic risk she took in high school would block her career path now. I hate to see that kind of behavior punished. We’re getting the incentives wrong.


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