March 2, 2014

OH | Grade Inflation at Cornell

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By DON OH

Grade inflation at CORNELL?! My fellow classmates may wonder exactly which hallucinatory substance I’ve been smoking and reckon it must be from the past weekend’s party to commemorate the next editorial board at The Cornell Daily Sun. One may even see it as a statement of protest, since the newly schedule spring break will rob me of the rare opportunity to ramble on April Fool’s. It could also be a mistake of misplacing the prefix “in” rather than “de” before the root “flation.”

Despite all these intelligent, uncanny conjectures, I stand firm behind my point in a sober, sharp conscience. I can visualize students on the Science Hill — Baker Hall, the Physical Science Building and Rockefeller Hall — and the Engineering Quad jumping out of their chairs with burning red faces, enumerating endless incidences in which their hardest efforts resulted in dissatisfactory, substandard grades. Under the current system, with a blatant display of one’s precise percentage score on previous prelim after callous curving, it’d be absurd to argue Cornell’s grading system is inflated by any means. One may advise me to take classes outside of “easy” departments as sociology and human development and enroll in a hardcore science course before I draw a premature generalization of Cornell’s rigor. This very response encapsulates Cornell’s problem: GPA depends on one’s major.

When you fall behind the fast pace of science courses, you’re simply out of luck for the materials that accumulate through the semester. Humanities, on the other hand, allows far greater leniency and flexibility: If you are not fond of one of class-assigned books, you can write your essay on another book. You don’t like an essay prompt, you negotiate with professor and possibly create your own project. To request any accommodation remotely resembles these in a science course would result in dismissal from office hours or no email reply.

Cornell’s science departments deliberately insist on unreasonably harsh grading in attempt to allegedly guide students. Its governing philosophy aims to weed out less-than-competent, committed students to better prepare students for competitive medical school admissions. But who gets to decide what field to pursue other than the students themselves? The hubris rhetoric that these departments somehow possess power and authority to determine students’ academic trajectory based on numerical competition is incredibly mindboggling. Clearly, Cornell’s primary priority is to maintain high medical school acceptance rate by removing “less than stellar” pre-meds rather than assisting individual students to reach their goals.

What I find amusing about that argument is that if a department’s GPA should incorporate the competitiveness of respective field, shouldn’t the bar be even higher for the humanities? When a premed student has a bad GPA, she can go to a second-tier medical school. Computer science majors get recruited to Silicon Valley firms based on their past experiences and projects, not by their numerical GPA. To secure a true humanities profession, on the other hand, you must be off-the-chart brilliant.

Obtaining a tenure-track faculty position at any four-year institution is virtually impossible without the right timing, connection and luck, on top of one’s impeccable credentials. Working at a museum or a national news media outlet is quite appealing, but you’d better have distinguished quality.

If Cornell really wants to weed out students based on future probability of making it into a professional school or finding a job, there should rarely be any As granted in the humanities, since that would be a more accurate, statistically representative figure for the grim future of humanities major.  It is pointless and highly problematic to compare GPAs at Cornell. A 2.7 GPA in the engineering school requires more time commitment than achieving close to 4.0 GPA in some disciplines of humanities.

When I disclose my close-to-4.0 GPA, it is not to brag, but shout out the extreme disparity in the number of hours it takes to get an A in the humanities versus the hard sciences. My work nowhere nearly mounts to my counterparts in the sciences, yet I somehow end up with a much higher mark.

Cornell administration defends the current system, assuring students and parents that by inserting median grade next to each class, employers and grad schools will gain more comprehensive perspective on the academic achievement of a student. This is a deceptive lie. When you apply for a competitive internships, firms may receive hundreds of applicants for a few spots. We like to hoist ourselves as “special” with our Cornell pedigree, but there’s a dozen of other schools with compatible caliber. We like to entertain the idea of prospective grad school admission committee taking a careful look at our transcripts, probing the contents of each class as well as your relative standing in lieu of the median performance, when in reality, all they see is school, major, GPA, and internships and research experience.

This salient inequality must end. To diminish the numerical gap, we can either enforce harsh grading rubrics onto every discipline or we can adopt “the Brown model” and elevate grades in the sciences. I personally think Cornell should adopt “the Princeton Model” by limiting a number of As given to each class, but what’s most important is giving every student a fair chance at their future after college. This blatant discrimination in grading benefits neither the students nor the school’s reputation.

Don Oh is a senior in the College of Architecture, Art and Planning. He may be reached at doh@cornellsun.com. Bi the Way appears alternate Mondays this semester.

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