April 20, 2020
A few weeks ago, I outlined why I believe that grades need to be abolished. The main argument is that grades have alienated students from the real purpose of education. Rather than learn, students obey their teacher’s instructions as closely as possible to maximize their grade. Abolishing grades might actually make graduates more competitive: creative problem-solving employees are are in high demand, but grades limit risk-taking and creativity. Abolishing grades will also create a more collaborative and less stressful environment.
The natural follow-up question is, has abolishing grades ever been done successfully before?
The answer is yes… but most schools who claim to have abolished grades actually only have partial implementation at best. Brown University allows students to take classes P/F, but most students choose not to (This seems to be a collective action problem in which choosing P/F seems to imply academic weakness in the eyes of employers, forcing students to P/F sparingly). The Evergreen State College has no GPA, but professors still award between 0-16 credits for each course taken (an additional side-effect is that it can be difficult to graduate within 4 years if professors are stingy with credits awarded). Reed College and St. John’s College still have GPA- they just don’t tell students what grade they have. Yale Law School abolished letter grades, but still has a fail, low pass, pass, pass with honors system.
That said, there were a handful of schools that I believe truly embody the spirit of “abolishing grades.” They are: The New College of Florida, Hampshire College, and Antioch University. Moreover, they all have found an alternative that seems to have pleased everyone, from employers and graduate schools to students and professors: narrative evaluation. I will go over 2 of these 3 schools, and then discuss the benefits of narrative evaluation.
UPDATE: It has been brought to my attention that Bennington College and Goddard College are two other universities that have abolished grades.
The New College of Florida is unique because it is a public university, which proves that public schools can be a source of innovation in terms of revolutionizing grading systems in America. Classes do not grant credits or GPA. Instead, students enter into “contracts” with their academic advisors with personalized educational goals. From their website, “Each contract must contain the equivalent of at least three full semester educational activities to be evaluated for transcript entry, both before and after contract renegotiation. A typical contract includes three to five academic activities (including courses, tutorials, internships or independent reading projects) that will develop a student’s personal educational goals.”
At the end of the semester, every professor writes a 1-page essay on each student’s performance in the class, which can be sent to employers or graduate schools in lieu of a traditional transcript.
How are student outcomes affected by a lack of grades?
The lack of grades, surprisingly, did not impact graduate school admissions. From their website, “About 80 percent of New College alumni go on to graduate school within six years of graduating. For the 2010 graduating class, 86 percent of graduates who applied to a Ph.D. program were accepted, and 100 percent who applied to law school got in.”
This makes intuitive sense to me. Graduate schools are notoriously picky about GPA because their ranking depends on it. For example, Yale Law School accepts students with an average GPA of over 3.91! That means that even a couple “bad” (not A) grades will sink one’s chances of ever attending. In fact, the lack of grades likely improved the chances of each student to get into graduate school.
It is very difficult to get accurate graduate employment data because the federal government does not collect it. Why? Well, in 2008, a lobby group called the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities argued that collecting this data on the federal level would violate student privacy. This lobby represents small and middle sized private schools, and to me this is an indication that these schools might have something to hide (perhaps the graduate salary data for many of them is not impressive enough to justify the high tuition rates that many small colleges charge).
As a result, whether a university has strong employment outcomes or not depends on the data that you look at. This data is largely incomplete and flawed, but it is all we have access to. For example, in 2014, the State of Florida argued that employment prospects were not looking very hot for graduates of the New College of Florida, and funding was subsequently cut. According to the linked article, the median wage of graduates within one year of graduation was only $21,100. This statistic, however, is very misleading due to the high percentage (80%!) of students who go on to attend graduate school. Moreover, it only included students who stayed in the state of Florida, despite the fact that many students found attractive job offers out of state.
Once you account for students outcomes in the long run, student outcomes are significantly stronger. In fact, the median wage of students after 6 years of graduating is $65,000. It seems quite clear that the New College of Florida managed to turn around their reputation recently, with Forbes, Kiplinger’s Personal Finance, Princeton Review, and Fiske Guide to Colleges all naming the New College of Florida a “best buy”/”best value” university. And recently, the New College of Florida was granted a $4 million increase in budget as part of a new push by Florida to invest in public education.
The New College of Florida is a great case study in successfully implementing a system of abolishing grades at a public university. Contrary to the perception that public schools face more strict regulations and bureaucracy that prevents educational innovation, the New College of Florida has produced innovation exceeding that of most private institutions. Moreover, given the employment and graduate school outcomes, the New College of Florida is garnering more attention from the state. This will be an interesting university to watch over the next several years, and might potentially lead to other public universities following suit.
I was able to spend some time at Hampshire College at a summer program directed by a faculty member, and can personally vouch for the high quality of education I got through that program. That’s why the news of Hampshire potentially closing – permanently – feels a bit close to home. Unlike the New College of Florida, which is funded by the government, as a private institution Hampshire College has had to rely on tuition dollars to keep the lights on. As many commentators have speculated, Hampshire may be the first sign that the business model of private colleges is unsustainable.
At Hampshire College, students craft their own programs of study. They do not offer grades, and instead, professors write narrative evaluations for each student.
I couldn’t find a lot of data on this, and as stated before, much of the employment data is unreliable. According to this website, the average salary for Hampshire graduates after 10 years is $37,100 per year. On the other hand, Payscale states that the average salary is $50,200 after 5 years and $111,100 after 10 years. Yet, Payscale rankings should be taken with a big grain of salt, because it relies entirely on the self-reporting of people who visit the site.
Hampshire College is another example of how abolishing grades and using narrative evaluation can be an attractive grading system, as the school has been in operation since 1970. Moreover, 99% of Hampshire College students said that, “Hampshire encouraged me to think and work independently,” and 95% of students said that their experience was positive. To me, this indicates that abolishing grades makes students happier, more creative, and more independent.
Yet, it is also a case in which budget shortcomings put a strong pressure on its educational mission. In order to compensate for budget shortcomings, Hampshire admitted more students than it probably should have. “Attrition was too high. … We were bringing in too many students for whom Hampshire was too hard a school,” says David Matheson, who leads the board’s finance committee. Because Hampshire is a no-grade school, “a good number of folks came in thinking it would be easy and did not end up graduating.” As a side note, I think this is strong evidence that the absence of grades does not imply an easier workload: grades remove the stress from homework and tests, but not the work itself.
Why are schools like Hampshire College struggling so much with their budget? It may be because the current model of private institutions is flawed. Financial aid, in economic terms, is essentially price discrimination, similar to how seniors might get a discount on a movie ticket. It discriminates against wealthier families because they have an inelastic demand for high-quality higher education. You can actually see this with the recent scandals involving wealthy people bribing their way into elite institutions like Georgetown University. Some families paid as much as $450,000 to designate their kid as an athlete for special admission considerations. Clearly, they will pay whatever the price is for a good education.
That’s why universities keep raising their prices every year (Georgetown raises tuition by 3% every year). Wealthy families will be happy to pay the full cost, while those who are more price sensitive can petition for an increased discount (At Georgetown, about half of students pay full price, and half of students pay on average 40% of tuition and other fees). But what happens when there are too many colleges? When wealthier students have the choice between two schools of roughly equivalent rank but differing tuition rates, they often choose to attend a university of lower tuition rates. Likewise, they also might choose to attend a higher rank school with a higher tuition rate if given the choice. Hampshire is not highly ranked and charges a relatively high tuition. Thus, Hampshire college’s budget issue boils down to this: Hampshire has trouble attracting (and keeping) wealthy students who are willing to pay full price. At Hampshire, only 4% of students pay the full price of tuition.
Despite Hampshire’s success in educational innovation, it is in big economic trouble. This is truly a shame, and to add insult to the injury, the behavior of other universities hardly changed. I think this indicates that the burden of educational innovation should fall on wealthy private institutions and public institutions. Not only are these institutions more insulated from economic pressures, allowing them to be even more educationally innovative, but they might be better suited to be leaders. One could imagine a large and successful change at a university like Georgetown, Harvard, or the University of Illinois leading to widespread adoption among all colleges.
Expanding on the second point, there is one compelling reason that GPA has endured as a method of sorting students, and that is this: there are too many applications for too few spots. College admission officers reportedly spend an average of about 7 minutes per application before deciding to toss it or not. GPA allows these admission officers to automatically reject a large portion of students and reduce their workload. This is a complex issue that likely deserves its own blog post, but I imagine that the solution involves a combination of abolishing things like the common app that allow students to submit a lot of applications, hiring more admission officers, and colleges designing their own standardized tests. This issue persists when it comes down to job applications. As a side effect, I imagine that “networking” and “connections” has become even more vital as it becomes more and more difficult to stand out from other applicants.
I think that universities, particularly smaller universities, should abolish grades and implement narrative evaluation. As seen in my previous post, there are many issues with the current system of letter grades. And while there may be some issues with narrative evaluation, the positives seem to overwhelmingly outweigh the negatives. Moreover, it is a feasible method of grading students that does not negatively impact student outcomes, particularly when it comes to graduate school admissions.
What do you think about narrative evaluation? Let me know in the comments below, and thanks for reading!