In Pursuit of Numbers: What Do Our GPA’s Even Mean?

by / 2 Comments / 6363 View / December 14, 2014

“Hi, I’m Alec Silverstein, 4.0; nice to meet you.”Using a GPA as an introduction seems ridiculous, but is it really so far-fetched on today’s grade-obsessed college campuses? As many colleges approach finals season, many students face a wave of stress, panic, and long days (and nights) in libraries, all in an effort to earn a few numbers that have a huge impact on self-perception. Many parents send fruit baskets and notes of encouragement in an effort to beguile their students into states of complacency about grades. “Don’t stress about physics…have an apple.”If only it were that simple. Over time, it seems that grades are becoming more and more important in today’s society, and settling for average levels of achievement is simply not enough. Some students are purely self-driven, while others may feel stress or pressure from family, peers, or themselves. With this mentality pervading thousands of students and families across the country, we must ask ourselves if higher education is on the right path.

I came to Columbia University an idealist, steadfast in my pursuit of new ideas and ambitions. I expected coming to a place whose legendary Core Curriculum allows engineers to mix with philosophers to discuss Plato and Aristotle while simultaneously striving to develop a fundamental understanding of the Schrödinger equation. Every day I am inspired by the intelligent community and the constant quest for knowledge, yet also surrounded by a sense of competition and continual stress. Unfortunately, the college measure of achievement remains all too familiarly focused on grades, much as it did in high school. As college students, we are taught to be conversant in many diverse realms of life, yet many of us are still shortsighted in that too much of our continual search for understanding of the world becomes diluted in our preoccupation with numbers.

Some colleges have begun to take steps toward addressing this obsession with A’s. Recently, Princeton University has removed its infamous grade deflation policy, which limited the number of A-range grades given out. This means that even if many students demonstrated outstanding performance in the course, only a certain number at the very top would actually receive the corresponding “A” grade; in other words, the grade may actually be curved down. Removal of the policy was a step in the right direction for Princeton, which reportedly heeded the outcries of disgruntled students and worried applicants, some of whom were scared off by the implications for their potential GPA and future. Grade deflation causes an increased sense of competition, desperation, and stress, which defeat the purpose of learning for the sake of learning in a supportive, collaborative environment. If students are fearful to work together and learn from one another, the point of higher education surely becomes diminished.

With the pass/fail system, perhaps Brown University is doing it right. But does this simply delay the inevitable? Ultimately, there are definite flaws in today’s education system. Students strive to learn, but in reality they are measured not by the amount they yearn to understand and use to change the world for the better, but rather by what they can memorize and spew back on a piece of paper. It is important to have open dialogues between students and professors on this issue, and develop personal and societal understanding of what grades should mean. There is fundamental conflict between the standard grading system and the search for knowledge, which may not be so simply measured. And yet, as I contemplate these issues, I am back to the task at hand; I read my parents’ supportive notes, eat my fruit, and hope beyond hope that I do get an “A”on my next essay.

  • klgw

    This is so important. I’ve been told constantly in undergrad that I can’t “compare myself to others,” yet I am constantly forced to, since my grade is determined by how well everyone else in my class does. One of my professors outright told me I would’ve gotten a higher grade in her class, but in order to give me a more fitting grade, she would’ve had to balance it by giving someone else a lower one – our professor is given a set amount of A’s, B’s, C’s, etc to give out at the end of the semester based on how well our section of the class does on the final.

  • Tiffany Chen

    I am currently a student at Brown. Based on my experiences thus far, the pass/fail option (NOTE: it’s an option, not a system) does help to promote learning for learning’s sake; that being said, not all students have the same motivation to learn. It really depends on what you make of it and how you approach it.