October 18, 2020

BETTEZ | What’s in a Freshman GPA?

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The Cornell Engineering administration is under no illusion that first semester freshmen are under a large amount of stress and pressure. Thrown from all corners of the world into a notoriously difficult University environment, there are bound to be growing pains as they acclimate to their new lives. The administration provides them a large number of supplementary Academic Excellence Workshop classes, bar them from joining the competitive and time sinking project teams as fully fledged members and flood them with resources and opportunities to find their home and people on the vast campus. But despite precedent from other leading engineering schools, they’ve failed to eliminate the single greatest stressor to these bright-eyed freshmen: Their grades. By switching the first semester grading scheme to a S/U system, we can create a more equitable environment for students to acclimate to their new lives.

Eliminating grades is bound to be a controversial topic — after all, what is a difficult university experience without the unifying experience of the first failing grade on a prelim? Does the elimination of grades for a single semester open the college up to accusations of “coddling” its students? But those failing grades may actually be eliminating whole cohorts of students with the potential to succeed and diversify the future of engineering. Research has shown that women value high grades more than men, which leads to women dropping out of engineering schools at higher rates than men when their higher expectations aren’t met by their weed-out class grades. From personal experience, I have a good idea as to why — to succeed in the face of condescension from male peers and professors, a lack of female role models and the continuous pressure to prove yourself intelligent against the assumption that you’re not, it becomes a battle to prove to yourself that you belong. Women internalize the sentiment that they are not worthy of participation in science, technology, engineering and math unless proven otherwise, while men understand they are assumed worthy unless proven otherwise.

The retention of women in STEM is often compared to a leaky pipeline — Cornell loves to tout its 53 percent enrollment of women in the engineering school, but a more impressive statistic to me would be a high female to male gender ratio of engineering school graduates. By reducing the pressures of grades on freshmen engineering students, students can establish themselves in a far less stressful environment, and female engineering students can focus on grounding themselves before being pressed into the endless loop of proving themselves.

Eliminating grades in a single semester out of eight can also help diminish the early effects of classism in student GPAs, and encourage the success of students from low-income high schools. Classes offered in the first semester of engineering classes are the basis upon which the rest of the degree is built on, but it’s no secret that many students are given a leg up from the start. Students whose high schools offered high level classes enjoy a substantial advantage — freshmen who took AP Calculus BC get to bypass MATH 1910, and if you were lucky enough to attend a school that offered Multivariable Calculus, you get an easy A in one of the most notoriously difficult courses in the entire engineering curriculum. By offering first semester S/U instead of graded, these early disparities can be smoothed over, offering an even GPA base in the upper level classes no one has taken before.

Other acclaimed universities have instituted the same policies — Massachusetts Institute  of Technology grades only P/NR — pass or no record — for first semester students, even more lenient than S/U. Thus, MIT’s freshmen have the options of passing — given for A, B, or C — or having no record of ever having taken the class at all. California Institute of Technology grades P/F for freshmen, where even a D is a pass for the entire freshman year.

This way, if you get a good GPA your first semester — that’s great! It means you’ve established a great base for your future semesters, and already have the study habits and skills to succeed and get a great GPA for subsequent semesters. And if you only got a good GPA because you had already taken those classes before and can’t replicate it in subsequent semesters — tough luck. You’ll end up with the GPA you were meant to have. But if you struggle to acclimate first semester, or attended a high school which gave you a shaky base, this gives you time to catch up and work on your base without worrying about the distinction between a B- and a C+. These courses are the foundation to all other classes for the rest of the engineering degree, so if someone slacks off and doesn’t learn the material their first semester, they’ll make up for it in catchup work later.

STEM has long been regarded as the objective equalizer in education: On the surface, our work is easy to objectively grade between right and wrong. As a college and University, we should strive to take measures to allow all students a more equal opportunity to get those right answers. We should wait until the first semester of classes has served to even out the knowledge base of each student before counting their grades towards their GPAs.

Michaela Bettez is a senior in the College of Engineering. She can be reached at mbettez@cornellsun.com. Bet on It runs every other Monday this semester.