This Friday, at around 5:03 p.m., several Yalies will be kicking themselves for having missed the Credit/D/Fail conversion deadline.
First comes denial: “Ok, this is fine, I’ll just petition the registrar. After all, what kind of heartless bureaucrat would deny a serious student like me the opportunity — nay, the right — to boost his GPA because of an extra-long line in Blue State?”
Then, about two milliseconds later: “I’m never getting into law school.”
Before long, however, these students will realize that they can now cut class and skip readings without consequence. They’ll remember that P-sets only count for 20 percent of their grade, that finals are easily BSed and that, despite DKE’s best efforts, nobody at this school really gets Ds anymore. “Credit/D/Fail?” the newly liberated will chortle, crumpled syllabi in hand. “More like Credit/D/Sail.”
It’s easy to treat this attitude as an exercise in academic slothfulness, unbecoming of those fortunate enough to enjoy the promise and privilege of an elite education. But that critique, much as I sympathize with it, overlooks the many ways in which our current system penalizes the students who are working hard and rewards the students who aren’t.
Grade inflation has effectively made it impossible to earn any grade below a C, thereby obliterating the GPA incentive to work hard in a class kept credit/D. Personal edification may motivate some students, of course, provided they are Credit/D’ing something they genuinely enjoy. But since enjoyment tends to correlate with effort, and effort with achievement, the pool of such students is probably relatively small. I’d estimate most Yalies are spending an hour per week at most on their Credit/D class — hardly enough time to learn anything of value, especially factoring in shoddy lecture attendance.
And even if you do care about your Credit/D class for its own sake, investing energy there involves an opportunity cost: On the one hand, it reduces the amount of time available to spend on classes that actually count toward your GPA, forcing you to weigh the epistemic benefits of self-enrichment against the professional toll of a blotted transcript. Furthermore, it reduces the amount of time you can spend on other classes that you also find intrinsically edifying, meaning you must weigh the epistemic benefits of that fifth class against the epistemic benefits of the first four.
The trade-off isn’t grades versus knowledge, in other words. It’s knowledge versus grades and even more knowledge. To put the point in economic terms, the marginal cost of studying for a Credit/D class usually outweighs the marginal benefit. Some students adopt the Credit/D/Sail mentality out of sheer torpescence, yes, but for many others, the choice represents a perfectly rational response to competing incentives.
Incentives which, it must be said, would largely go away in the absence of the Credit/D system. True, students would still prioritize more interesting classes over less interesting ones, but they’d have to temper this impulse to avoid compromising their GPA. Unfortunately, eliminating Credit/Ds would also discourage experimentation and promote homogeneity in undergraduate course loads — two undesirable outcomes the present system was specifically designed to prevent.
Yet the inability to take distributional requirements on a Credit/D basis has undermined risk-taking by fueling the proliferation of so-called “guts” — classes whose sole purpose is to provide writing or science credits to people who aren’t very good at writing or science. A humanities major might be interested in Newtonian mechanics but lack the mathematical background to excel in Physics 180, so he’ll end up taking something like “An Issues Approach to Biology” — even though that class will almost certainly teach him less than Physics 180 would. Far from nourishing academic diversity, then, the Credit/D system enables academic cowardice, much to the chagrin of parents and administrators who want students to challenge themselves.
This last result could be fixed by permitting students to count Credit/D courses toward their skills credits. The first problem is more challenging. One idea would be to let students see their final grade in a Credit/D class before deciding what they want on their transcript. That would encourage everyone to work hard for the entire semester and make the Credit/D option more like a safety net than a free pass. Such a proposal could exacerbate grade inflation, no doubt, but it would also ameliorate the perverse incentive structure baked into current policy. Moreover, pairing down on guts would reduce opportunities for GPA-padding, which would in turn counteract grade inflation and encourage students to take more diverse course loads.
Neither solution is perfect, and I’m open to hearing alternatives. In the meantime, though, we should stop pretending that the Credit/D system promotes academic exploration. If anything, it promotes the opposite.
Aaron Sibarium is a senior in Timothy Dwight College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays.