Ellen Ruppel Shell

Praising the low grade for a harder course

By Ellen Ruppel Shell
February 21, 2010

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FOR MANY of us in academia, February is the start of the graduate student harvesting season - a time to plow diligently through scores of applications in hope of gleaning the most promising students to join us next fall. Poring over my own pile of applications to Boston University’s Graduate Program in Science and Medical Journalism, I am overwhelmed by what appears to be an avalanche of genius.

Year after year, I’m seeing more “perfect’’ 4.0 grade point averages, and plenty just short of the 4.0 mark. To be clear, that means getting a grade of A or close to it in every course a student takes, regardless of his or her major. I don’t recall in my college days having peers with such intellectual multi-dexterity, but that was ages ago. Are today’s undergraduates smarter, harder working, and more talented than we were back then?

Maybe not.

Taking a closer look at the applications I find the highest grade point averages too often correlate with the least interesting and ambitious course selections. This is unfortunate. A grade of B- or C in freshman chemistry seems to steer many students away from taking upper level science courses. A low grade in freshman English or anthropology discourages physics majors from taking other than the least demanding selections from the humanities and social sciences. In their understandable effort to maintain the highest possible GPA, undergraduates seem to cut themselves off from experimentation, challenge, and risk taking, the very things that a university education is meant to stimulate.

The pursuit of the perfect GPA is a distraction that leads too many students away from the challenges they should be facing in their undergraduate years. At a time when public understanding of science is critical, fewer and fewer non-majors are taking demanding science courses, due at least in part to their fear of getting penalized for their efforts with a less than stellar grade.

They have good reason for this concern - other than the most basic “physics for poets’’ type classes, science is notoriously tough, and everyone knows that a high GPA is the price of admission to many prestigious post-graduate programs. But should a student be barred from attending law school, for example, simply because his undying interest in astronomy lowered his grade point average? Do we really want to encourage future professionals to take the easiest possible route to ensure their best possible chance of attending graduate and professional schools?

The GPA is a noisome construct, and misleading. . . an indication of far less than we believe it to be. Interestingly, applicants to my graduate program from foreign universities appear on paper to be far less qualified than American applicants, their academic records cluttered with grades of 60 and 70 out of 100, and not a few C’s.

An applicant from Oxford University, for example, clearly took the most challenging courses on offer within her specialization, with the result that not all her grades were high. Yet she graduated with distinction and with high praise from her professors, who recommended her enthusiastically as a candidate for graduate study. She did not bag a full complement of A’s, but she has a distinguished record of achievement, as well as broad demonstrated knowledge of everything from neuroscience to politics to the arts.

Whether that British candidate will be as successful as an American applicant boasting a perfect grade point average is hard to know, but it’s a risk well worth taking. I’m also willing to place my bet on a graduate of an American university whose low grades in introductory mathematics and chemistry did not discourage him from taking an increasingly challenging course load in his field of interest, which happened to be biology. Had he switched majors his freshman year, no doubt his GPA would be higher, but he would have cheated himself. His stubborn determination to learn science trumped his fear of the almighty GPA, and gradually, his grades improved.

I wish more American college students were similarly able to cast aside their fears and blossom intellectually throughout their undergraduate years. But that will happen only when more graduate and professional schools put the GPA into its proper perspective as at best a fickle predictor of potential.

Ellen Ruppel Shell, a professor at Boston University, is author most recently of “Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture.’’

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