Grade inflation is making our students too risk averse

Grade inflation in the US education system is a common observation, one that is, at least at the college level, largely undeniable. A couple recent interactions with students has brought it to the front of my mind again. When discussing their majors and what classes they were taking, there was considerable hesitation to take what were perceived as difficult classes. What I thought this called for, in the moment, was a bit of confidence building, for a professor such as myself to say “You can do it!”

It turns out confidence in their ability to learn the material was not the issue. What they were unsure of was their ability to get an A. No, to guaranteed get an A. It was the risk of a sub-A grade that concerned them (likely exacerbated by the fact that my university does not award + and – grades in undergraduate classes). So I went through my usual pitch:

You take 5 classes a semester for 8 semesters. That’s 40 classes. The cost of couple B’s or even a C will pale in comparison to the benefit acquiring more technical skills, which would pay out for a lifetime. A couple courses in computer science, econometrics and statistics, maybe real analysis for those thinking about a PhD in economics – these would all have huge payoffs. There was a problem with my logic, however, that quickly became apparent.

They weren’t sure what they wanted to do after their bachelors. They didn’t know what advanced degrees they might pursue, whether law or medical school was something they were interested in. What they did know, however, is that GPAs were really important. That students were applying to things they might be interested in, and doing so with 3.8 and 3.9’s. When they saw classes that regularly handed out C’s (not D’s or F’s mind you, just C’s), what they saw was pure downside risk. If they were great at something, no one would ever be able to tell. But if they weren’t, or if they had a bad day on a hard final exam, that it could close doors. What I inferred was that they were trying to maximize their expected outcomes, and in order to do so they had to minimize the number of hard classes in their portfolio. Each path had a handful of unavoidable hard classes, so to take a an additional hard class beyond the requirements of the path they chose was suboptimal.

I don’t know that they’re wrong.

I’ve told this story before. When I was considering getting a PhD in economics I planned on just going to my local school. I was visiting a friend on the opposite coast, though, and thought I’d stop in at a really good local school there. I met with the director of graduate studies in the economics department and was flatly informed that my application would not be read because my GPA (3.2, if you’re curious) was below their cutoff. I said thanks and left. It was some time later that it dawned on me that this was ludicrous. Did they simply never admit students from (the famously uninflated grades of) CalTech? Were they discriminating against math and engineering majors? Likely not. But this is deeper knowledge than that held by your typical undergraduate. All they know is the average admissions statistics and the implied (or in my case explicitly stated) cutoffs.

When we inflate grades and get rid of standardized tests, we put greater pressure on students to curate their education to expected grade outcomes and, more important, to minimize risk. There’s no upside to shining in a difficult class if the best 50% all get A’s. The signal value of success has been attenuated. The signal value of failure, however, has not just been left intact, it’s been heightened. There’s no positive variance to balance it out. There’s no way to be an excellent B+ student whose occasional C in risky classes are balanced out by some exemplary A’s. We’ve effectively raised the costs of taking challenging classes and in doing so discouraged students from acquiring the skills that are most rewarded in the marketplace.

The problem only becomes all the worse when we think about the cultural biases in the confidence we cultivate in different groups of students. If a deficiency in math and science has been low-key implied at every stage of your education, you’re that much less likely to incur the risk of “hard classes”. There’s much pearl-clutching over “everyone winning a trophy” and school being too easy from folks who walked to and from school through 12 months of snow, uphill both ways. Those arguments, which are often little more than a sort of grumpy money illusion, miss the real problem entirely. Undoing grade inflation to make school harder is like giving 7 points for every goal in soccer to make it more exciting.

The actual grades don’t matter. What matters is the the shape of the distribution of grades . If we bunch everyone in the A’s and then disproportionately select into institutions based on those grades, we’re incentivizing students to stay in the herd. To risk your GPA for the sake of hard classes is to risk being isolated. To risk being cutout by admissions committees trying to sort through 1000 applications, half of with have near-perfect GPA’s, and for whom the fastest way to make their workload manageable in an acceptable manner is cut out everyone with less than 3.7.

I’m not sure students are wrong in their grade-mongering. They got into college in many cases based on nothing but those GPAs. They’ll be able to go to grad school without taking the GRE. There will come a day, however, when the next step isn’t school, and after which no one will ever ask them their GPA again for the rest of their life. After which the only thing that will matter is what they know. And who will know more: the overconfident student of upper-middle class parents who graduated with a 2.8 BS in electrical engineering or the pragmatic student who curated courses to maximize their 3.7 GPA while preparing for the MCATS and medical school? I don’t know who will leave with more skills, but I also don’t worry about either. Who I worry about is the first-gen college student, the child of a working class household with a 4.0 BA and 4.0 MA in communications who, desperate to prove to others that they belonged in school, made sure to protect that perfect GPA at every turn. What have we done to ensure that they know enough when they enter the job market?

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