Why Do They Care About Grades So Much?

At the end of every semester, I hold what I cheekily call my “group therapy session” about grades.  For about 20-30 minutes on one of the last days of class, I go over how I calculate grades, appropriate ways for students to talk to me about grades, and what frame of mind they should bring to their grades as they view and think about them.  In order to combat the inevitable anxiety, I usually say a few words about how employers generally don’t care so much about grades earned in lower division courses, that the difference between a B and an A in a sophomore level lit class doesn’t mean a whole lot in the long run.  Then, one of my innately brightest students (who also struggled that semester for a variety of reasons) called me on what he pretty accurately judged was a bunch of happy horseshit.  “The difference between an A and a B,” he said, “is the difference between Flagship State University Law School and Regional College Law School.”  And you know what, he sort of has a point.

I’ve written before on this blog about grade grubbing, and given where we are in the semester, just a few weeks before midterms (how is it October already?), it’s no surprise that conversations about student laziness, excuses, “snowflakiness,” and sense of entitlement to unearned grades are starting to pop up on academic sites.  Though really, as someone who actually did get mono during exam week as an undergraduate, someone whose grandmother did pass away during the final week of classes just two years ago, and someone who had a student nearly die due to a chronic illness last term, I have this to say to the haters:  Don’t be a douchebag.  Treat claims of illness and family emergency as legitimate unless you know for sure that they aren’t.  Don’t treat these things as an occasion for a free pass, but help students work through the situation in a way that satisfies requirements for successful completion of the course without, you know, sending them into therapy, prompting them to quit school, or compromising their health.

But back to grade-grubbing:   I wonder if we, as instructors, spend so much time complaining about the way they expect awesome grades for merely average work and treat instructors like magical A-dispensers, that we’re missing a bigger point about the pressures that students face in a vastly more competitive and ever-shrinking labor market.  I wonder if we are too quick to explain this behavior away as selfishness, immaturity, and the result of a consumer-based education system that we miss the fact that such behavior may, in fact, be a rational response to the shrinking of opportunities for all but the most exalted (not to mention well-connected) individuals.

My extended family members are frequently astounded by my generation’s approach to education.  On both my mother’s and father’s side, their generation was the first to ascend to the middle class.  My father’s parents had no college education.  My mother’s father went to college–much later than the traditional student–after the Korean War, on the GI bill.  Both of my parents and all of their siblings, by contrast (there are 9 of them, total), have at least some college education.  Many of them have graduate degrees, and most of them own their own businesses or occupy senior management positions in national corporations.  But most of them will confess to having spent their teenage years in a state of total rebellion, not really giving a flying frack about grades.  Most of them scored about 1000 on their SATs (I know that scores are inflated now) and still got into the best two public universities in the state.  A few of them dropped out of college for various reasons and then returned to get their degrees.  I doubt that my grandparents were really thrilled about that, but they accepted it and seemed to manage the expense of those lost years without too much trouble.  My father put himself through medical school, which cost less than $1000 a year in the early 80’s. I say this all just to point out that the costs and outcomes of higher education are, by all measures, changing radically and rapidly.

The grandchildren–my generation–were all raised to care intensely about performance in school.  Part of that increased emphasis on getting good grades was, I think, a result of generational differences in parenting, but it also seems to have been an acknowledgment of the shift in college admissions standards and the fact that a college education is now compulsory for anyone hoping to make a middle class income in adulthood.  My sisters and I all scored 1300 and above and still sweated about getting in to the very same universities our parents sailed into without a worry with much lower grades and test scores.  College admissions have gotten ridiculously competitive, resulting in what is, effectively, the professionalization of the teenage years, when every class and every extracurricular experience is carefully selected based on how it will look on a transcript or a resume, when students are increasingly encouraged to begin thinking about college in middle school, when top high schools routinely engage in the practice of grade inflation in order to give their students an edge.

This is a system in which it becomes very difficult to learn how to deal with struggles and failures, because you can’t afford to have them. In my junior year of high school, my grades began to slip, not because I was lazy or unmotivated but because I was mired in an undiagnosed and untreated depression, a slip that most certainly cost me my top choice college.  The teenage years are fraught with experimentation, crisis, and yes, failure, and those are all experiences that contribute to adult growth, but the consequences of that period is frequently so dire and unacceptable that it’s sort of no wonder that students begin looking for dishonorable but frequently effective ways mitigate those consequences.

Much of this thinking is catastrophizing.  Plenty of people make B’s in various classes and move on to gainful employment.  Plenty of people drop out of college and return.  Plenty of people do not get into their first choice college or law or medical school and have rewarding careers.  But students occupy a space that is part alternate reality and part actual reality, a space in which the stakes for being slightly less than extraordinary increasingly feel bleak.  Middle class wealth is shrinking, not growing.  The only group that continues to get richer is the superstars, the celebrities, the CEO’s, and many students still operate under the assumption that the U.S. economy is a meritocracy, that brilliant grades and admission to a top business or law school signify entitlement to all of the riches the world has to offer and that all they need to do is keep presenting the case that they are meritorious (even if they aren’t) and the rewards will follow.  My grandparents aspired to join the middle class back when it really was something to aspire to.  Now, increasingly, it isn’t.

So why do they care about grades so much?  Because they think they have to.  That’s not a call for instructors to indulge them in their quest for unearned rewards, but it is a call for empathy and a call for those of us who have the opportunity to intercept these kids at a particularly delicate time to help them successfully enter adulthood, to educate them about how to manage setbacks responsibly.

2 thoughts on “Why Do They Care About Grades So Much?

  1. I think a lot of this also depends on the student culture of a given institution. I teach at a branch of our state university, with a student profile very similar to that of community colleges (it is a commuter campus, with no residential students). In the two and a half years I’ve taught there, I’ve only had two students question me about their grades. By the parameters you set out here, these students should be aggressively concerned about their grades, as most of them are going to college to escape working-class backgrounds (many are first-generation, or are older returning students), and a significant percentage are on financial aid, which depends on maintaining a decent grade average (indeed, for some of these students, that financial aid is what’s keeping their families afloat). So these students have ample reason to worry about grades, because there is so much at stake.

    However, what these students are not is entitled. I won’t say that they’re grateful for acceptable grades, but neither do they assume that the world (or their professors) owe them anything. And so… they don’t tend to challenge grades unless there’s a real gap between their expectations and the result. (As was once the case with one first-year student taking a senior-level course and not understanding why high-school level work wasn’t A level.)

    I’d actually prefer a bit more grade-grubbiness among this population, because it would mean that they think that they’d have a chance at something beyond a job good enough to pay the bills.

  2. Honestly, especially three years later into a jobless recovery, I think this post is even underestimating how real the dangers college graduates are currently facing..

    Obviously, anyone in college has a big edge-up for those of whom aren’t able to attend to begin with. Still, a very significant obstacle our parents, if they went to college, didn’t encounter was the massive opportunity cost college students currently face due to how hugely inflated tuition has become and subsequently how massive student debt loans are. Tuition at public universities has risen higher than any middle-class family could have expected to save for, and these institutions are actually more likely than private universities to offer financial aid in the form of loans. The average debt of recent graduates from both public and private universities is in the tens of thousands of dollars. It’s absolutely terrifying to face a job market of entry-level positions that not only don’t pay well enough to adequately subsidize these loans in the short-term, but are becoming increasingly competitive as the number of unemployed and under-employed degree-holders applying for these positions increase. The perception that student debt as a bubble about to burst does not seem outlandish from the perspective of recent graduates.

    Personal pity-party anecdote time: I was fortunate enough not to have a bad spell in high school, scoring a 1420 on my SAT, graduating with a 4.0, and having a good career as a speech and debate competitor. I was not accepted into any of the elite schools I was aiming for (none of them Ivy-league type, but in the next tier down), which I would have been bitter had not most of my peers gone through similar experiences. I went to my state’s flagship school, which while not considered prestigious, still offered a very good academic experience overall.

    Despite that, I knew from the start that without the name-brand recognition of my university, the only method for distinguishing my degree from thousands of others conferred annually was to graduate with honors. The minimum cumulative GPA for receiving the lowest distinction was a 3.85 or higher. This changed the importance of academic performance in my life from a personal goal into a contingency. That completely reoriented how I approached my education in college. The ideals of a liberal arts education pretty quickly go out the window when you prioritize maximizing the amount of points earned in a class out of fear being buried in irreconcilable debt five or ten years down the road. It’s probably not surprising that this stress in itself put serious strain on my ability to study effectively much of the time.

    This is certainly not a problem exclusive to elite universities and the upper-middle class. Still, the fact that becoming a lawyer has become a pipe dream for a sizable portion of law graduates should be deeply ominous.

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