Last week, professor Laurie Santos joked in the now infamous course, “Psychology and the Good Life,” that she would give everybody a D. After all, she remarked, research suggests that our GPA has very little correlation with our future happiness. Unsurprisingly, Yale rioted. After numerous emails, upset calls from parents and some talks with residential college deans, she sent out an email clarifying that everyone would not, in fact, get a bad grade — though she admonished students for not taking her underlying message to heart.
Setting aside the irony of the situation, Professor Santos has a point: Grades suck. Of course, according to most commentators, the reason they suck is that they’re usually too good. According to a study conducted by former Duke University professor, Stuart Rojstaczer, and a Furman University professor, Christopher Healy, more than 42 percent of all college grades issued today are A’s.
Apparently, this is a problem. Without accurate grades, the reasoning goes, how on earth will employers and graduate schools ever figure out how one student stacks up to others academically? The answer, of course, is that they don’t — and more importantly, they shouldn’t — at least not via grades. GPA is a terrible comparative metric for college students; a student’s ability to take one or two exams a semester doesn’t predict much directly. Yale ought to undermine the practice of paying attention to such a silly measure whenever it can. This is precisely why Yale should be handing out As like candy and be far more aggressive about inflating our GPAs.
The fact that people pay attention to GPAs seems silly. A journalism job should probably place more emphasis on the writing you publish for your school paper than your ability to analyze Shakespeare in a seminar, and any PhD program worth its salt should be searching for highly efficient researchers, not the students best able to stay awake in lecture halls. And they do. According to a 2012 study by the Chronicle for Higher Education, GPA was the seventh out of eight primary factors that employers considered for hiring decisions. Instead, most focus more on extracurricular activities and displays of leadership. At most, students need to pass a minimum GPA threshold to apply to a company. Graduate schools don’t seem particularly concerned either. It’s an open secret, particularly in STEM fields, that one’s research matters far more for PhD admissions. These trends make a lot of sense. In high school, grades mattered as they were predictors of your ability to do well in college courses; in college, there isn’t much more to work for academically. Even graduate students barely take classes past the first couple of years. Clearly, there are better predictors of success post-college than raw academic ability. This may be why our law school and our medical school have eschewed conventional grading schemes entirely; their eccentric methods of evaluating students haven’t diminished their reputations. Yale Law School, for instance, has been ranked the top law school in the country every year since US News rankings have existed.
Of course, there’s enough social cachet in letter grades that the College can’t follow the model of our professional schools exactly — at least for now. Even if grades don’t matter much, the rest of the world still uses GPAs for professional school admissions and as a basic cutoff to apply to certain programs. It may be a stupid metric, but it’s here for now. Admittedly, tracking our performance relative to other students is important, but comparative academic performance is measured much better through standardized testing than grades. It’s hard to discern the difference between a Yale A and an A at any other school, which is why arbitrary GPA cutoffs are silly. Perhaps there should be a Pass/Fail test that each course administers at the end of each semester. Perhaps rankings in each class should be recorded and available on request, but if current trends hold, it’s likely that most companies and graduate schools won’t care much after a while.
I do worry that a more exam-heavy environment incentivizes teaching solely for the sake of passing tests, and in the absence of grades, other social signaling mechanisms will pop up that will exclude poorer students. But at least in the heavily grade-inflated Ivy League, we live in that world already and these are solvable problems. Just let us learn. As Vikram Mansharani of PBS notes, we’re quickly “barreling towards a world without grades.” I look forward to that world, but until it arrives, the least we can do is take a stand against this archaic system of evaluation. The only “A” that matters should be the one between the Y and the L in Yale.
Shreyas Tirumala is a junior in Trumbull College. His column runs on alternate Wednesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .