April 21, 2020

YAO | Median Grades: Never the Whole Picture

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As the economy descends into chaos, it’s time for Cornell to reconsider its grading policies. Namely, it’s time to reconsider the column of letters centered on every student transcript — each course’s median grades. Cornell publishes median grades on transcripts to protect against grade inflation and to represent each student’s performance in comparison to those of their peers. However, the University fails to acknowledge that, more often than not, these grades disadvantage students during graduate school admissions and job or internship searches.

This semester, Cornell decided against compiling median grades. In doing so, the University recognized that such measures of achievement do not depict as holistic a picture as they were intended to. The “context” that medians provide is not indicative of our relative performance or potential, especially in these uncertain times. At the end of the day, our transcripts will never show or explain the full set of circumstances behind those concise lists of letters –– letters that are supposed to accurately encompass our entire academic journeys.

Indeed, there is only one scenario that places a student in a positive light both in terms of their relative class performance and in terms of raw GPA: When they obtain a high grade in a class with a low median. These instances form the minority of student experiences. More common is the student who scores well in a class where most students score well, or the student who scores around the median in a class with a lower average. Cornell’s median reporting policy should not disregard the more common outcomes across the undergraduate population in the name of preserving its reputation.

Students who enjoy classes or choose majors with higher averages are labeled as ‘taking the easy way out,’ devaluing their accomplishments. On the other hand, the transcripts of those who take risks but fall short of the median present the distorted image that these students will underperform outside of college as well. Furthermore, many classes have multiple sections with different professors or teaching assistants. Under such circumstances there cannot exist a standardized level of challenge, even within a single course; some sections may score lower as a result of their proctor’s grading habits, but its students would still have to contend with the overall course median on their transcripts.

Within the span of a few months, the world has been thrust into uncharted waters. We don’t know what next month will hold. Next year seems too foreign a notion to even think about. What we do know, however, is that a global recession in the next 12 months is inevitable. And according to Stanford Economist Caroline Hoxby, every recession since the 1960s has increased the demand for higher education. 

If unemployment numbers  remain high after the pandemic is quelled, we will likely see another uptake in people — not just recent college graduates — seeking out graduate degrees in the coming years. The high volume of applicants will make gaining admission to a program much harder, especially for recent graduates with less professional experience. On the other hand, those who do decide to enter the labor force will face increased competition for fewer available jobs. In both situations, transcripts may be subjected to heavier scrutiny in order to differentiate between candidates. Thus, it would be much easier for employers and admission officers to draw misleading conclusions from raw medians.

This year, our generation has seen normalcy crumble in a matter of months, and it’s only a matter of time before the next life-shattering event comes along. If Cornell wants its students to succeed beyond the university, it should be prepared to adjust some of its school policies to the ever-changing environment. Removing median grades from our transcripts would set the precedent that the University is willing to adapt for the benefit of its student body.

Katherine Yao is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at kyao@cornellsun.com. Her column, Hello Katie, runs every other Wednesday this semester.