Grading Hanlon’s Academic Plans

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During his much-anticipated Moving Dartmouth Forward speech on January 29, President of the College Phil Hanlon put forward his vision to turn Dartmouth into a place for “24/7/365-day-learners.” Toward this end, he explained the necessity of “consistently increasing the rigor of our curriculum,” and how “doing so can have a positive impact on student life and behaviors.” In essence, President Hanlon argued that raising academic rigor and workloads would positively reshape “student life and behaviors” — like curbing drinking and other such recreational activities.
President Hanlon then went on to list specific initiatives that are part of this broader goal. In regard to his plan to “increase the rigor of our curriculum,” Hanlon put the onus of the task on Dartmouth’s faculty by asking them to consider options such as “curbing grade inflation… not canceling classes around celebration weekends… [and implementing] earlier start times for classes on Tuesday and Thursday mornings.”

The Root of the Issue

President Hanlon’s idea to increase academic rigor is worthy of consideration. The policy of increasing academic rigor to counter drinking and other such recreational activities — that have been, for better or worse, demonized — may likely be the most practical one that has so far been suggested.

The fact that many Dartmouth students choose to go out as much as they do and as often as they do — for many, three to four nights a week — partially stems from the fact that most students do not have classes three to four days a week. Tuesday and Thursday morning classes are not common, and those that are offered are, with a few notable exceptions, relatively unpopular. Even when professors employ the occasional X-hour — a 50 minute slot separate from usual class meetings that are usually reserved for professor absences or other disruptions in the normal syllabus schedule — for normal Monday-Wednesday-Friday classes, these X-hours meet at relatively late times on Tuesday or Thursday afternoons.

More broadly, there is no denying that grade inflation exists at the College. The average grade point average (GPA) of all students enrolled in the College this past 2014 fall term was 3.443, significantly above the 3.05 average GPA of Dartmouth students in 1975. Nearly a dozen academic departments at the College report median GPAs for their courses at or above a 3.7 (equivalent to an A-). College alumnus and Dartblog commentator Joseph Asch ’79 has extrapolated that, if grade inflation continues at its historic rate, the entire Class of 2068 will be vying for valedictorian since the average grade issued at the College would be an A.

Given this situation, a lazy albeit ambitious Dartmouth freshman can, without significant difficulty, tread his or her way through four years at Dartmouth with minimal difficulty and stress and still be able to boast a stunning GPA. It is, of course, unfair to say that a majority of students attempt to toe this line, as much as it is unfair to say that the majority of Dartmouth students are doing the exact opposite by consistently enrolling in difficult classes and accepting a lower a GPA in return. It would, however, be fair to say that most students are indeed treading the middle path in this spectrum, leaving plenty of room for the merriment and recreation that the Administration and the College’s critics lambaste.

It is for these reasons that Hanlon’s push to increase academic rigor may be the most practical of all of the various “solutions” that have been proposed to curb “dangerous” or otherwise undesirable recreational activities. It would be a move that significantly alters the underlying institutional incentives that allow many Dartmouth students to party four nights a week while maintaining admirable GPAs. Simply, if a student no longer has much free time or has early morning classes, it stands to reason that he can reliably be expected to spend fewer of his nights in fraternity basements.

A Novel Approach

Time and time again the administration has experimented with various policy measures to curb what is deemed “high risk” or otherwise undesirable Animal House behavior. And time and time again the administration’s efforts have failed or even severely backfired. Last year’s implementation of the six-week fraternity ban for freshman students — a policy that prohibits freshmen from drinking in fraternity basements for the most part of their first fall term — actually increased freshman alcohol related hospitalizations and arrests during the past two fall terms. The College’s push in the late 1980s to move rush eligibility from freshmen spring to sophomore fall did not quite turn students off from the Greek system; it only forced them to rush during later terms, thereby limiting their D-Plan options (considerably fewer students elect to take off or do a foreign study program during their sophomore fall). Moving Dartmouth Forward’s hard alcohol ban is the latest example in this series of restrictive policymaking.

All of these initiatives tried to somehow snip the branches of a culture, not its roots. President Hanlon’s proposal alternatively strikes the very institutional holes — hangover-friendly Tuesday and Thursday mornings, generous grading, etc. — that manifest in Dartmouth’s “Animal House”-inspiring culture. It is a novel and pragmatic approach, albeit one that can’t make the headlines that flat out “bans” on hard liquor or pledging can.

Potential Issues: Intercollegiate Competitiveness

Nevertheless, President Hanlon’s proposal’s likely effectiveness does not automatically make it a policy worth pursuing. Perhaps the strongest critics of Moving Dartmouth Forward’s academic rigor proposal are Dartmouth’s graduate school and career-conscious students, which shouldn’t come as a surprise. Admission into top graduate programs is almost always heavily reliant on GPA. According to data published by the American Association for Medical Colleges, the average GPA in 2003 for accepted and matriculating medical school students was an impressive 3.62; the same figure in 2014 now stands at 3.69. For top 14 law schools, the most competitive 75th percentile GPA for admitted students ranges from a near perfect 3.98 (Yale Law School), to a still impressive 3.77 (Cornell Law School).

Corporate recruiting isn’t any less GPA-conscious. A National Review editorial titled “How Elite Business Recruiting Really Works” sums up GPA requirements for highly coveted and competitive management consulting entry level jobs as: “If your GPA is below about 3.5, you’re out… The average successful candidate has a GPA above 3.7.” While GPA requirements for just as competitive and coveted finance — especially investment banking — jobs are reportedly not as stringent as those of management consulting jobs, most successful applicants have GPAs that fall into a similar range.

It thus isn’t difficult to understand why Moving Dartmouth Forward’s academic rigor initiatives are concerning to many graduate school and lucrative career aspirants on campus. The fact of the matter is that if Dartmouth were to raise academic rigor in a manner that adversely affects Dartmouth students’ GPAs, Dartmouth students will directly suffer vis-à-vis their competitors for the same graduate school or corporate recruiting spots from our peer institutions. Indeed, Harvard students’ dominance in corporate recruiting and graduate school placement stems in large part from the fact that the median grade given out at Harvard is an A-, equivalent to a 3.7 GPA. It is likely the same reason that Princeton University recently reversed its infamous decade-old grade deflation policy this past year.

Unless all of Dartmouth’s peer institutions were to coordinate to uniformly readjust inflated grading measures, for the College to deflate its grading and increase its rigor would be to unfairly punish Dartmouth students.

Potential Issues: Lack of Individual Departmental Focus

Just as most parts of Moving Dartmouth Forward remain unspecified, President Hanlon’s proposal for academic reform does not explain how exactly rigor will be increased. By his exact phrasing, Hanlon seemingly puts the onus on individual professors and their respective departments rather than on his own administrators. A department-by-department approach is wise, but interdepartmental autonomy in the matter may not be so.

There’s not much to be said regarding the immense difficulty and grade deflation Dartmouth’s science, technology, engineering, and mathematics students must already deal with in their classes. Both popular stereotypes and common sense suggest that Dartmouth’s engineering and premed students are hardly the ones having too much fun every other night. Most STEM departments already report lower GPA medians and much higher workloads relative to their humanities and social science equivalents. Increasing rigor in this sector of Dartmouth would be far from useful or wise.

It is worth noting that some of the College’s most popular departments — Economics, Government, and Computer Science, among others — have already undertaken deflationary measures. The Government and Economics departments have enforced B/B+ medians for many of their classes, and the former even prohibits the use of the NRO option. The Dartmouth Review has lauded these departments for their efforts in the past — they have maintained solid enrollment by offering quality instruction, research, and professional opportunities while ramping down on grade inflation.

As for the departments that boast generous median grades — Theater, Women’s and Gender Studies, etc. — maintaining healthy enrollment seems to correlate with a flow of A’s and A-‘s. Many of these departments also have other ideological or political incentives to purposely keep their curricula’s difficulty low and medians high, and thereby keep department-wide enrollment and interest up. If President Hanlon is serious about raising academic rigor, he will need to address these interests and incentives that stand against his initiative. This will be a difficult task given department-specific politics, both internal and external.

Rhetoric or Change?

Of course, it may very well be that the administration has no serious intention of intensifying Dartmouth’s academic rigor; it may just be a new policy initiative on the books to generate positive publicity for an institution that’s been plagued by terrible coverage as of late. The fact that President Hanlon seemingly plans to hold individual professors responsible for driving the changes could simply result in ‘reforms’ that pay lip service to the plan but entail no material change.

If that is the case, the Dartmouth community should be both relieved and disappointed. Dialing up course rigor may have been the one policy measure in Moving Dartmouth Forward that would have resulted in real change. It would have been the policy prescription that didn’t just skirt the issues at hand with ineffective measures that entail babysitting Ivy League students; it would have attacked root of the issue and fundamentally altered individual Dartmouth students’ social and academic incentives. It would have the potential to truly change the culture of the College as a whole.

On the other hand, the current culture of the College hasn’t exactly ruined countless classes of students. Generations of alumni of all races, backgrounds, and identities who have done quite well for themselves in all regards — in nearly every field and industry, whether for private or public interests — are the products of this “high risk” culture that has been demonized. With this in mind, we ought to ask not how the College’s cultural status quo can be most effectively changed, but how exactly it needs to be changed, if it all.