January 29, 2024

GUEST ROOM | A Student’s Plea for Grade Transparency

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In an era of widespread grade inflation and soaring tuition, universities face a critical question: Are they institutions of learning or mere diploma mills? As a computer science student aspiring to law school, I understand the importance of a high GPA. Yet, as someone investing four years and $360,000 in my education, I seek more than the superficial pursuit of good grades. I seek a genuine education and transparent grades encourage learning. For Cornell, a bold stance on grade transparency will signal a commitment to substantive education. 

In the late 1990s, Cornell began a two-pronged experiment to counteract the detrimental effects of grade inflation on learning. In 1998, our University began posting median grades for courses on the registrar’s website. In 2008, Cornell added median grades to student transcripts. Yet, in 2011, the Faculty Senate passed a resolution to remove median grades from the registrar’s website — and, last month, the Faculty Senate passed a resolution to remove median grades from student transcripts.

Why this backtrack? Both grade transparency-reducing resolutions are based on a study suggesting that the inclusion of median grades on the registrar’s website increased the number of students shopping for leniently graded courses — thereby increasing grade inflation at Cornell. On this basis, the Faculty Senate decided the experiment had failed and that median grades must go.

I disagree for two reasons. First, the research followed by the Faculty Senate was conducted before median grades were added to student transcripts. Second, the goal of the initial resolution, in being transparent about median grades, was not to combat grade inflation per se but rather to combat its adverse effects, by providing context for grades.

On the first point, one may well ask how the Faculty Senate could shut down the experiment based on a study conducted before the experiment had finished. Many factors could have influenced this decision, such as professors who want to continue grading leniently to receive positive course evaluations, low-ability students who ride on the coattails of high-ability students by way of inflated GPAs and a cautionary mental health review. In any event, the Faculty Senate used an arguably incorrect interpretation of the study to reduce the transparency of grades. The study found (as anticipated) that including median grades on the registrar’s website increased compositional grade inflation — i.e., the proportion of the student body enrolling in higher-grading classes. Yet, further research should have been conducted to study whether adding median grades to transcripts — an essential component of the original plan — mitigated this effect.

While compositional grade inflation may undermine the credibility of every Cornell student’s raw GPA, including median course grades on the registrar’s website ensures that this impact is distributed equally among all students. Under this information regime, all Cornell students have equal access to information enabling them to select leniently graded courses if they want to — eliminating the advantage for well-connected students who hear rumors about different courses from their friends. Thus, while Cornell combats grade inflation through more effective strategies, the unfair advantages of grade inflation are minimized by grade transparency. 

On the second point, the addition of median grades to transcripts diminishes the opportunity cost of not selecting GPA-boosting courses, as it becomes more challenging to mislead uninformed employers and graduate schools that a high GPA reflects stellar performance rather than a strategically selected course load. Thus, including median grades on transcripts disincentivizes students from course shopping based on class difficulty. Furthermore, including median grades on transcripts would seem — intuitively — to incentivize academic venturing. The context-setting median grade decreases the risk to students of enrolling in challenging low-median courses, by tempering the harm caused by a lower grade. Students can justify to parents, employers, graduate schools and themselves that their “low” GPA is not due to underperformance but to a rigorous course load. However, empirical evidence is important: Cornell must capitalize on its position as a pioneer in grade-in-context policies to research their effects on course shopping and academic venturing.

Admittedly, providing median grade information is not a perfect policy. A high median grade on a transcript can falsely imply that a student took the “easy” way. However, Cornell must solve this through University-wide grade capping, to ensure there is no “easy” way. Cheating can inflate median grades, too, harming the honest student. However, Cornell must solve issues of academic integrity directly, through stricter enforcement. Moreover, median grade information might seem unnecessary if raw letter grades indicate mastery of the material. However, even if it were true that raw grades demonstrate mastery, median grades would still have value in communicating the difficulty of courses to external observers. In any case, raw letter grades do not speak for themselves because professors have different standards for what constitutes mastery of the material. When considered alongside other factors, such as the departmental context, median grades help to standardize academic performance.

Lastly, Cornell’s mental health report cannot be ignored. The report noted that students experience stress from courses being graded on a curve: Students feel pitted against each other. However, suppressing information about the median while continuing to grade on a curve will only exacerbate this competition for many students. Without context for their GPA, academic venturers — whom the University should prioritize — will need to score significantly above the median in their challenging courses to match a non–academic venturer’s higher GPA. 

Moreover, eliminating curve-based grading would not alleviate student stress. The root cause of this stress is the desire to achieve a high GPA to signal competence to employers and graduate schools. These institutions evaluate applicants relative to their peers, so abandoning curve-based grading would only reduce this stress if grades compressed in the A range — diminishing the information conveyed by a Cornell GPA. However, since students must differentiate themselves from their Cornell peers for graduate school placement and employment opportunities, an informationless GPA would only lead students to transfer their stress from academics to extracurriculars in order to signal competence. This shift would be a recipe for mental health deterioration and the corrosion of campus culture: It is far more healthy for the main competence hierarchy to lie with (mostly unbiased) exams than with notoriously toxic, status-oriented student organizations that solidify pre-existing inequalities based on race, class and normative beauty. 

By keeping the most important competition — the one for GPA — fair, Cornell will demonstrate to students that honest hard work contributes more to success than jockeying for social status. Cornell, as an elite institution, must resist its tendency to establish anti-meritocratic structures that protect the elite class from “undesirables” (hardworking, upwardly mobile individuals). Cornell must prioritize students who seek a comprehensive education — the great equalizer. Transparent grades not only protect the curious learner but also uphold the integrity and value of a Cornell education. Therefore, Cornell should not only retain median grades on transcripts but also reestablish them on the registrar’s website, to safeguard learning during our formative time at this University.

Jonah Bernard is a sophomore in the College of Engineering. He can be reached at [email protected]. Guest Room runs periodically throughout the semester.

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