Right before spring break, I was having a conversation with a friend about how we were finding our classes thus far. “I just feel like there are competing incentives when it comes to our education here,” she sighed. “Like, if it comes between doing all of my reading thoroughly, and writing my essay that gets me my grade, I’ll blow off my reading and spend my time writing,” she continued. “It’s sad, but it’s true.”
As Yale students, we’re constantly balancing aspects of our lives. To go to Woads, or not to go to Woads? To get some exercise, or to finish tomorrow’s assignment? And one of the most frustrating balancing acts we face, when it comes to our education, is that of balancing our idealism and our pragmatism.
Indeed, there are two competing incentives regarding our education: that of learning for learning’s sake and the very real drive to ensure we have the best GPA possible for our post-graduation plans. When we don’t adequately balance these incentives, there is a pronounced tension that shifts the focus of our education from the joy of learning to a type of calculated grade groveling.
Consider the statistics. When asked about their expected plans for the fall following graduation, nearly one fifth of the class of 2016 said that they planned on attending graduate or professional school. For this chunk of students, having a stellar academic record will make a tangible difference in their graduate school acceptances.
Moreover, in that very same Office of Career Strategy poll, a whopping three quarters of the class of 2016 responded that they planned on entering the workforce. And when it comes to the elite finance, consulting and governmental positions, applicants’ GPAs are absolutely vital. Even if most of those respondents didn’t have Goldman or Boston Consulting Group aspirations, their academic records are still fundamental parts of any job application.
And there is very clear logic behind why any employer would value an applicant’s GPA. If our GPAs measure how well we did in college and we assume that our grades are the outcome of our hard work and wit, then our GPAs are helpful indicators of our competencies.
Now, the question becomes: What happens when these goals that require pristine GPAs collide with our goals of learning for learning’s sake? Are the two mutually exclusive? Most importantly, which goal should we value more?
To address the first question, Yale is filled with ambitious and eager people. For many, prioritizing graded work over ungraded work is hard-wired. Indeed, in my first semester and a half here, I’ve been knee-deep in these types of academic trade-offs. Time and time again, I’ve chosen to start an essay or a reading response instead of working all the way through a mountainous ungraded reading assignment.
But I feel an acute guilt for doing this … like I’m cheating myself out of the education I have worked so hard to get.
“It’s sad, but it’s true.”
As to the second question — whether or not learning for the sake of learning is mutually exclusive with pursuing a high GPA, it certainly doesn’t need to be. I spoke with a friend of mine about this problem, and he told me about his US National Elections class. There, the goal of learning is intimately tied with how one is graded — there are five low-pressure essays that can be written on anything throughout the semester that students find interesting.
Now, I am no Blue Book expert, and there are certainly other courses designed like that one, but I am more concerned with the work-heavy courses in which our ideal and pragmatic approaches to our education don’t coexist as easily.
To be clear, this is not a sob fest about the amount of work being thrown at us. On the contrary, we’re highly capable people — we can handle heavy workloads.
I simply wish to underscore the frustration at being pulled in two equally compelling, but opposite directions by these competing incentives. However, I think these competing incentives are reconcilable. In the long run, statistically, the majority of us do have a vested interest in ensuring that our GPAs are competitive for our post-college plans. So there is a pressure to succeed.
But this pressure needs to be balanced with how we approach our classes on the margin. On a week-by-week scale, our approaches to our classes shouldn’t be consumed by foreboding thoughts about how every little move we make will affect our grades. Indeed, if we are able to balance how we approach our classes in the long run and how we approach our classes on the margin, the frustration of our competing incentives can be diffused.
Sammy Landino is a first year in Grace Hopper College. His column runs on alternate Wednesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .