By Deb Rowcroft '19
If grades didn’t matter, why would we need a grading policy? Wellesley’s grading policy—or as it’s popularly known, the grade deflation policy—was supposed to attract students to STEM majors and make it so those who “really earned” an A got the recognition they deserved. I mean, really, how will we know how amazing and hardworking a student is if they’re stuck among others with the same grades?
We acknowledge that we are more than our grades. But if that is really the case, why would it be so hard for a student with a high GPA to stand out from the rest? They have work experiences, leadership roles, and research positions. Wellesley likes to say the policy distinguishes those who work the hardest, those who really earned their grades, as if those who really earned them are better, more capable students than the rest of us. What about those who didn’t “work hard enough” to get the best grades? What does this say about who can afford to devote every ounce of their time and resources to Wellesley academics, and those who can’t?
It’s not like student workers don’t have it hard enough here. If you don’t “work hard enough” on your studies, you’ll be lucky to get a B+. God forbid you have to be at work during your professor’s office hours. May the curve be on your side if you’ve been scheduled at your job through S.I. sessions or help room. What if you have family responsibilities when exams are scheduled? You’re on your own. A professor once literally called my job an extracurricular, as though not being a student worker is a choice I can afford.
Wellesley justifies giving students lower grades because they didn’t “work hard enough,” or didn’t give their classes enough time, but a lot of students don’t have that time to give. This does not mean that these students don’t care as much or aren’tas smart, or even smarter, than the students who get As. Wellesley academics have a lot of unwritten requirements. In order to do well here, you may have to go to every office hour, every help room, every extra session you can make—and if you can’t make it, you’re just not trying hard enough. Too bad for you.
What if you’re a first-generation college student, and you didn’t even know you were supposed to be going to supplemental sessions in the first place? What if you don’t know you were supposed to change your work availability to accommodate office hours? Who tells you what you need to do to succeed here? You’re just told to work harder, and dedicate more time to studying. What if you’re using that time incorrectly? Tony Jack, a first-generation college student and Sociology PhD candidate at Harvard, has a brilliant suggestion:
“One thing I would like for every college to do is institute a policy that professors define terms like ‘office hours’ on the syllabus. That’s so simple… The college doesn’t have to dictate what kind of description they give because office hours look different for a chemistry class or a Spanish class. But what would happen if a professor said, ‘Hey, I’m Professor Jack. The class meets on Tuesday and Thursday at a certain time, and my office hours are 1 to 2:30, now let’s get started,’ versus ‘Hello everybody. I’m Professor Jack, and class is Wednesday and office hours are Thursday from 1 to 2:30, and I view office hours as a time for us to not only go over course material and larger course aims, but also an opportunity to talk about fellowships or how this course relates to larger issues.’ That’s making it personal. How different do those two things sound to everyone? In the first one, you’re assuming every-one knows what office hours are. They don’t. That’s a fact of the matter. Not all kids come to college knowing what office hours are. So translate it. And this is a kind of translation that has nothing to do with language like Spanish or French or Mandarin. This is about translating the college experience for students and their families.”
The fact that Wellesley’s grading policy (and teaching policies) lacks the components Mr. Jack talks about, but necessitates an average class grade, says a lot about what voices were taken into account (those of professors), and what other concerns were not (those of students). Less privileged students often feel uncomfortable approaching faculty. It took me over two years to figure out that I was expected to go to office hours outside of regular class time—everyone at home told me that if I went to college, I would have to learn everything by myself. When I did finally reach out for help, some professors wouldn’t engage with me unless I came in with a complete list of questions. Some would chat with me about my life. Others seemed to not care since I only showed up to their office hours one time the whole semester (at the end of the semester, too, to make it worse). As Tony Jack suggests above, maybe office hours wouldn’t be so scary if professors outlined their expectations at the start of a course, because it seems like every professor has a different set of expectations. Still, all professors at Wellesley are bound by the same grading policy. How can less privileged students learn how to “do” college, if they’re unsure when and how to reach out, and if “reaching out” means different things in different classes? What if not “reaching out” means a hit on your grades, even though you’ve been working harder than you ever could have imagined? What if going to help room really makes an impact on your grade in one class, but not so much in another? And how are you supposed to know the difference?
It’s not a secret that first-generation college students struggle with the transition to college, let alone at Wellesley. Nationally, only 11% of first-generation college students actually receive a bachelor’s degree. Wellesley certainly doesn’t do anything to make the workloads and lifestyles easier for its own first-generation students. The unwritten rules of college are everywhere, but grading policies like ours are not. Princeton got rid of their grade deflation policy for a reason—it was holding their students back.
Yes, there are lower-income students with high GPAs, but a few successful examples do not mean that the policy is not classist and elitist. These students probably have to sacrifice so much and lose out on so many other experiences because their time was wrapped up with work, both paid and academic. They’ve probably also had to put themselves through some really, really uncomfortable conversations, and deal with the judgment of professors who assumed they just didn’t care as much as the other students. When there’s a grading policy like ours, it’s very easy to delegate “okay” students who didn’t “put in enough effort” into the lower end of their class. But what if showing you care about the material is different for people from different backgrounds? How come lower-income students have to be the cream of the crop to be successful, but other students are able to have a healthy work-life balance, comfortable relationships with faculty, and get the grades they want? Aren’t we all smart, worthy, caring, and hardworking?
Meritocracy is a farce, and Wellesley plays right into it. A singular definition of “hard work” perpetuates inequality. Hell, look at college admissions—“hard work” in the form of volunteer service and leadership positions is met with college acceptance letters. “Hard work” in the form of part-time jobs and taking care of family members isn’t equally valued or respected by elite institutions. Both are worthy; both require determination and passion. We need to change the narrative of what constitutes hard work.
And sure, grades don’t matter. But what about when they do? What if you’re applying to graduate school, or hoping to get a high-paying job with lovely 3.3 or 3.5 GPA minimums? If you have a low GPA, good luck with that. I don’t get to write “I have a low GPA because it literally took me over two years to figure out how to be a student here, all the while receiving little to no help from faculty because they thought I didn’t care enough about their classes to come to office hours. On top of that, the grading policy is ruthless, so my struggles have impacted my transcript more than I thought they ever would.”
Only one professor ever reached out and asked me to come in to talk with her. After we met, she worked with me for my final project, helped me brainstorm for my final paper, and I ended up getting my first A on an assignment at Wellesley.
Wellesley’s grading policy creates this really nice pipeline of “success.” Those with the resources and energy to succeed here are off to the best graduate programs and well-paid positions at top-tier firms. Those with the resources and lower grades can succeed too, as long as their parents can introduce them to the people they “need to know,” or even land them a job interview or two. What about the rest of us? What about a first-generation college student, or student worker who couldn’t ever get above a B, but is dedicated, caring, and smart enough to change the world? Are their parents going to be able to show them the way to grad school? Are any fellowships or scholarships being offered to brilliant students with a 2.5? Will they know the people they need to know to succeed in high-paying fields, or get those jobs in the first place? Probably not. They’re definitely not going to stand out on job applications either, thanks to their GPA. Why does Wellesley only support and empower a few of its students at the cost of hindering so many others? Why does the success of some come at the cost of limiting the opportunities for others?
Left with fewer career options, less social and cultural capital, and enough student debt to literally last a lifetime, Wellesley fails working-class, lower-income, and first-generation students yet again. Wellesley’s grading policy can make an inconvenience become a catastrophe. We should be thinking about how it fails students who just so happen to have a more constant stream of inconveniences, like our disabled peers, students of color, lower-income classmates, and first-generation college students. Our community upholds and welcomes the grading policy, in all its elitist and classist glory, with one-dimensional definitions of what “merit” and “hard work” mean. Simply having a grading policy in the first place reinforces the importance of grades, and creates a singular definition of what it means to be a “good student.” My “hard work,” along with many others’, will simply never be enough here, while other students’ hard work is worth plenty. Why are we basing who “works the hardest” off these superficial grades, and a grading policy that reinforces the importance of grades in the first place? Our community acknowledges that students’ lives are worth more than any grade, but we really don’t seem to be practicing what we preach.
Deb Rowcroft ’19 is a social critic, sociology enthusiast, and local Marxist gone wild.
From December 2017 issue