Monday, October 01, 2007

Where all the children are above average...

There's a very nice article over at Inside Higher Ed on the problems of upping the GPA requirements for admission to certain majors beyond the GPA requirements for graduation:

Progression requirements produce what a colleague calls “academic boat people,” because these students drift from major to major even though they meet, and often exceed, the university’s general 2.0 GPA standard for continued enrollment. What are we to do with these students? What are we to tell parents when they complain that their child has a 2.4 GPA and yet cannot gain admittance into any of three preferred majors? Who should teach these students, and help them graduate? At my university such students become “undeclared majors,” and are transferred automatically into the College of Arts and Sciences. Do deans of the other colleges send flowers and chocolates in thanks of such generosity?

More important, who are these students? Last November I spied one of them late one evening at the local Sam’s Club. She was a decent writer in my upper-division course, but consistently earned C grades, and contributed very little to class discussions. She was at work, of course, and her lapel button held a photograph of her infant daughter. She greeted me kindly, and noted that she worked full time, was a new mother, and that soon she would finish the research paper for my course. At once my assumptions about her ability changed; suddenly her course grade reflected the complexity of life, and was no longer a simple metric of future success. Much the same happened months later when I encountered another student in a restaurant. He too earned a C from me, and as we conversed he noted that he worked more than 40 hours a week while enrolled in my course. He attended my 8 o’clock class, went straight to work, and then returned to campus for a class at night. As a progression requirement pusher I failed to incorporate the reality of these students into our department’s standards.

To be sure there are many students who do not work late, do not face double days with families, and who simply do not apply themselves in courses. This does not justify progression requirements, even though the goal of excluding just such students motivated my own jump into rule making. And herein lies the problem: progression requirements are exclusionary. They keep people from pursuing their particular academic goals. They prevent students from specializing in a field of particular interest to them. Yes, budget constraints mean that universities sometimes cannot meet the demand for programs. But often such issues are absent, and yet progression requirements remain. Take it from a former progression requirement pusher: Such exclusion, as well meaning as it may be, prevents universities from fulfilling the call to educate our citizens. As such they should be eliminated when possible, reduced when feasible, and abandoned as a means of determining in advance who will and will not be successful in life.

This an area of academic discrimination that is increasingly important to resist. Often its source lies in a self-aggrandizing desire to see our own fields has the hardest, best, or most demanding coupled with a, perhaps understandable but still unjustifiable, desire to teach only the best and brightest students with the most time to devote to our subjects. Even where admission to programs needs to be restricted simply because there are not enough classes to meet the student demand, a lottery might be a much better way to apportion those scare seats rather than setting ever higher GPA requirements.

1 comment:

  1. Great post. It seems to have to do with grade inflation - a C no longer necessarily means acceptable or capable - so one must ask for higher grades, and since people need them, one must give higher grades. That sort of spiral can go on and on. But C is supposed to mean competent ... ?
    or no?