The Tyranny of GPAs

Higher Education


Those attending New College graduations remark on the unalloyed joy with which graduates revel in one another’s success. They wonder if there are things in the culture that encourages this. There are. Or rather there aren’t: grade point averages.

Quantum mechanics teaches that the mere process of measurement fundamentally alters the nature of the object being measured. Behavioral economics teaches that how one measures and frames questions affects the results obtained. And life teaches that how one evaluates another matters profoundly to both parties.

So why should we be surprised that using grade point averages to evaluate students has entirely predictable and deeply perverse consequences?

In the absence of detailed information, graduate schools and employers will look to a student’s GPA. This tells students that they should maximize their GPA. And consequences follow from that. Why would any sane student take a difficult course not required for a major? A poor grade will lower one’s GPA. If you have difficulty writing, avoid courses that require lots of writing. They will lower your GPA. Need calculus because you want to study science? Take the easiest calculus course possible, preferably one you have taken before so that you will ace the course. Never mind that you probably won’t get the level of understanding you actually need. And if someone else in the course gets an A, it may lower your chances of doing the same.

New College records a student’s performance on each course, and on each semester, as satisfactory or unsatisfactory. The New College system is often described as ungraded, or even pass-fail, although it is anything but. Classes have lots of tests, graded assignments and research projects that challenge students to demonstrate what they know. But students are not assigned a numerical grade. Instead they receive a detailed written evaluation from each instructor, describing how what they have done, no matter how excellent, could be improved. There is no such thing as just squeaking by—your work in a course is either satisfactory (meaning it better be pretty darn good) or it does not count.

As a result, students can explore courses without fear of lowering their GPA, which provides incentives to exceptionally curious, highly motivated students. And faculty advisors both encourage their students’ curiosity and insist that those students take courses in areas they might have otherwise shunned.

But there is a less obvious payoff. Every student competes against himself or herself, not other students. Because of that, students encourage one another, and view each other as colleagues. And that leads to one fine celebration of each other’s success.

Donal O’Shea is president of New College of Florida.

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