• October 30, 2014

Academic Forgiveness: the Price of Pardon

Where does forgiveness end and enabling begin? It is a question all parents confront when raising a child, but it is also a difficulty that weighs upon policy makers across the country, including those in higher education.

While nearly everyone is familiar with grade inflation, fewer know about grade-point-average distortion. This happens when institutions allow students to selectively omit poor grades from their GPAs, thus offering a new, manipulative path to greater retention and graduation rates. We recently investigated academic policies in eight public institutions across a Southern state, and used this sample to explore how institutional rules play a role in inflating students' GPAs by creating incentives that undermine students' work ethic, weaken the comparative value of the GPA, and waste human capital.

Common academic practices give students opportunities to withdraw from classes without grades, use simple pass/fail grades that don't count in their GPAs, or repeat courses to replace old grades. What's new is transferring control over these strategies to students, without much oversight. By selectively employing these registration policies, students are now empowered to overuse academic forgiveness and "manage" their recorded grade-point averages.

Five percent of the seniors in the study used academic forgiveness policies for 25 to 50 percent of their entire college coursework. Predictably, as GPAs go down, more and more students use these strategies. Over two-thirds of seniors who were in that 5 percent had C-range grades. But overusing second chances is not limited to struggling students. We found that even a few graduating seniors with A-range GPAs used forgiveness policies to keep 20 to 35 percent of their coursework out of their GPAs.

Given that virtually all colleges and universities offer students some form of academic forgiveness to cover a range of legitimate circumstances, there is every reason to think these practices are endemic. This suggests that the potential for abuse is widespread as well.

One concern highlighted by this phenomenon is that lenient policies undermine the traditional work ethic by teaching students that performance doesn't really matter, because there's always another chance. Young adults do not learn how to work hard and overcome the challenges of a difficult course but rather how to manipulate a system to get the highest reward with the least effort. If students can excessively "white out" the record of their actions, they are taught neither personal responsibility nor accountability.

Furthermore, the variable meaning of the GPA and ultimately of the diploma are beginning to mimic the rewards of a midway arcade. Some people can knock all the clowns over with their first three throws of the ball and win a stuffed animal, while others can spend endless hours and tokens trying to get the same prize. If you see two people walking around the arcade with giant teddy bears, there is no way to differentiate between them. Similarly, without careful transcript analysis, we cannot readily differentiate between candidates with the same degree or GPA.

Finally, resources are being wasted by governments, by colleges, and by students in the form of loans, federal grants, and tax dollars used to finance collegiate study. Since not every student can afford the time and money required to buy extra chances, this system also perpetuates existing societal inequalities.

What can we do to fix the problem? Both surface solutions and deep structural solutions are needed. First, colleges could put limits on the use of all academic forgiveness policies. These should be informed by public opinion and the specific contingencies confronting a college. Beyond that, when bad things happen to students, academic forgiveness should be applied on an individual basis using processes with careful oversight.

At our university, this discussion is just beginning. Various changes in our institution's registration polices had been sporadically introduced over several years. When we shared our research with administrators, they were quick to ask academic leaders to take a step back and think about how the many-faceted academic policies work together.

More important, deep structural changes are needed in the way that colleges are financed. Thus far, an incentive system has emerged to reward colleges, in part, for simply retaining students regardless of their true academic progress. If financing were less related to enrollment, colleges could return to sorting students based on achievement and thus maintain higher standards.

But merely emphasizing an end result, like degree completion, will not solve the dilemma many institutions face. When financial support is linked to how many students stay in their seats or how quickly they can be shuttled across the stage, colleges will be motivated to cut corners. Clearly, money should not be allocated without accountability, but states should strive to find measures that are more meaningful. Fewer and more valid measures (like ratios that take into account both earned credits and attempted credits) are needed, not cumbersome or easily manipulated indicators such as the variations of simple head counts that are so common today.

We are not against second chances. We are, however, against the perpetuation of a misguided incentive structure. Instead of being allowed to simply delete their failures, students should confront the real consequences of their actions. Ultimately, such accountability would serve them, and their institutions, far better.

Jonathan Marx is a professor of sociology and David Meeler is an associate professor of philosophy, both at Winthrop University. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors, and do not reflect in any way those of the University or social science/philosophy collaborations of which they are members.

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