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November 29, 2010 4:32PM

Can I Have Your Number?! Aka your GPA

Universities must walk a fine line between clarifying GPAs and not encroaching on a professor’s ability to grade fairly

A student’s GPA may only be a number, but it is a critical factor that helps determine one’s prospects for employment and admission to graduate school. Although GPAs are perhaps the most significant standard for comparison, it is clear that not all GPAs can be treated equally. There is considerable variation in grading among institutions, disciplines, classes and instructors.

Given these inconsistencies, employers and graduate schools have to employ some guesswork when figuring out how to interpret a candidate’s GPA. A number of schools attempt to tackle this problem by creating measures that reduce the uncertainty around understanding a student’s grades. As part of this broader issue, during recent years, a movement has emerged to combat more specific trends like grade inflation — the supposed upward drift of grades over time, resulting in an academic world where a “B” or “B+” is average. Although some of the challenges that come with interpreting GPAs is inevitable, colleges ought to make some effort to put grades in context and help employers and graduate schools demystify the metrics behind undergraduate academic performance.

Some institutions identify grade inflation as a significant problem that undermines the integrity and value of grading systems. Princeton University, for instance, tried to combat this phenomenon in 2004 by limiting the number of A’s in most undergraduate courses to 35 percent — independent work courses for juniors and seniors saw a 55-percent cap. To accommodate for these changes and to appease students, the school also sends letters to graduate schools explaining its policy and prints a disclaimer on every student’s transcript reflecting that policy.

Although the intent of Princeton’s efforts is commendable, the policy eliminates grading flexibility among classes and may put students at a disadvantage across the board as they apply for the same jobs and spots at graduate schools as those from comparable institutions. More important, the policy reflects a notion that all grading is relative and that academic performance is necessarily competitive. This problem is mostly one of principle — it seems wrong to tell students that even if everyone works diligently and demonstrates excellent achievement, only a predetermined number of students will receive A’s.

Rather than cap the number of A’s, Cornell University posts median course grades online for students to peruse. Of course, this kind of approach inevitably results in an influx of students enrolling in classes with more lenient grading. Although Cornell’s system does not suffer the same kind of problems with inflexibility that Princeton’s does, this strategy also serves students’ interests more so than those of employers or graduate programs.

Indiana University’s approach seems to have the best balance. Rather than fiddling with individual professor’s grading preferences, Indiana issues expanded transcripts that break down the grade distribution for each class a student takes during his time at the school. Indiana’s system puts grades into a broader context and provides a way for employers and graduate admissions officers to evaluate a student’s performance relative to that of the rest of his class. Of course, for this policy to be successful, the supplemental information must be presented in a succinct format that can be easily and quickly interpreted.

Ultimately, grades are subjective and a GPA alone cannot accurately capture all aspects of a student’s performance or experience during college. Schools can, however, try to put grades into perspective without hurting the flexibility of professors across different fields to determine what constitutes a fair grade. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, but the problem of GPA inconsistency is too large to ignore.

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