Clean the Slate

Grade forgiveness programs enjoy more attention as colleges welcome greater numbers of returning dropouts.
October 20, 2010

Michael Mazer wanted forgiveness.

Ten years ago, after graduating from high school, he enrolled at Hofstra University because, as he put it, “that’s just what you’re supposed to do.” But residential college life at the Long Island institution didn’t suit him, so he moved back in with his parents in Voorhees, N.J., a suburb of Philadelphia, and started taking classes at nearby Camden County College. Even then, he said, he did so only to appease his parents.

A few disappointing and failing grades later, Mazer dropped out of Camden because of a lack of interest in his coursework. Instead, he decided to pursue his burgeoning interest in the restaurant business. Eventually, he worked his way from server to manager at a gourmet restaurant in Philadelphia. Still, amid the economy’s woes in recent years, he couldn’t shake the feeling that he had unfinished business back at Camden.

“I just had this worsening fear in the back of my head that if, God forbid, anything should happen to my job or something, that I’d have no real fallback,” Mazer said. “I had no demonstrable skills beyond managing a restaurant. So, I weighed my options and talked to my parents, moved back in with them and decided to go back to school.”

Though Mazer said he had changed, and had a newfound appreciation for learning and for the value of a college degree since dropping out of Camden all those years ago, his transcript remained exactly the same. The two Ds and an F he’d earned in politics and history classes back then meant that even if he earned all As for the remainder of his time at Camden, he could do no better than a 3.5 grade point average.

But, for Mazer, forgiveness came in the form of a pamphlet he read as he sat waiting to meet with his adviser for the first time. It detailed the college’s Academic Forgiveness Program, which allows students who haven’t been enrolled at the college for at least five years to exclude previously earned grades below a C from their cumulative G.P.A. The past classes don’t disappear from the record entirely; they remain on college transcripts but come with a notation that they’ve not been factored in the official G.P.A. Essentially, students repeat the coursework and their new grades are counted instead.

Now, Mazer is on track to graduate in the spring with an associate degree; he has a 3.8 G.P.A. and is interning with U.S. Rep. Robert Andrews, a New Jersey Democrat. He said he hopes to transfer to Rutgers University at Camden next year and eventually wants to enter politics.

“If you had told me 10 years ago that this was how it was going to be, I would have laughed at you,” Mazer said. “I enjoy school now. I don’t know, but something’s different. You get older and you realize that you’ve made a few mistakes and you want to move on. The opportunity I have now is just fantastic. I mean, I enjoy it. I enjoy doing homework and want to learn. And I’m doing well because I’m enjoying it.”

There are an increasing number of students like Mazer at Camden, said Raymond Yannuzzi, the college’s president. Though the Academic Forgiveness Program has been around since 1996, the number of students taking advantage of it has increased in recent years. Yannuzzi noted that only a handful of students used to apply for the program annually. In the past two years, however, that number has risen to 25 or more each year. He points to the economy, partially, for the uptick.

“It’s just more and more necessary to have additional training beyond high school,” Yannuzzi said. “Maybe some of these students had decent jobs 5 or 10 years ago without a college degree, but they find out they definitely need one.”

Photo: Camden County College

Postcard sent to dropouts promoting Academic Forgiveness Program.

The college has also started promoting the program a bit more. In the spring, it sent out postcards with juicy-looking New Jersey tomatoes and the perky question, “Looking for a fresh start this fall?” on the front to thousands of students who dropped out at least five years ago. Given the Obama administration’s call for more college graduates, Yannuzzi said his college is just doing its part. Still, there is something in it for the institution, too.

“Going into the economics of community college funding, public dollars are down and we wanted to keep tuition low,” Yannuzzi said. “Well the only way to do that and balance our budget is to increase tuition revenue with more students. This fulfills our mission to reach out to all parts of the population, but it’s self-serving in the sense that tuition is the only place we can increase revenue these days.”

There is renewed interest in amnesty programs like the one at Camden at other institutions as well.

Rowan University, in Glassboro, N.J., revived its G.P.A. Forgiveness policy this semester for students who started at the institution and earned a 2.0 G.P.A or less, and have not taken classes for at least two consecutive years. Joe Cardona, a university spokesman, said Rowan brought back the policy as part of a larger effort to put focus more on its adult education program, which has enjoyed greater student interest in recent years. So far, becuase the policy was just put into place and has not been heavily promoted, only one student has applied for forgiveness.

Elsewhere in the country, where policies like this have been around for a while, grade forgiveness may be too popular. At California State University at Sacramento, for example, newly implemented policy changes cap at 16 the number of credit hours from which a student can have his or her grades completely forgiven. Students can repeat up to 12 more credit hours, but for this additional 12 their second grade in a course will be averaged with their first grade instead of replacing it entirely.


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