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Short Take: It’s “A” Or Out

There is a weird dynamic that happens when you attend an elite college. You go in believing you’re pretty darn smart, which is why you’re heading for New Haven instead of Podunk, and as a pretty darn smart person, you’re supposed to get pretty darn good grades. In the olden days, you heard the speech at orientation that began “look to your left, look to your right,” and were informed that one of you will flunk out.

The warning was to tell you that you weren’t in high school anymore and would have to work, and work hard, to make the cut. There would be no free ride. Whether it was accurate or merely a scare tactic, I dunno, but it worked. At my college, they graded on a curve. and we knew only too well that there was a pretty darn good chance we would not get an “A.” But then, I didn’t go to Yale.

Nearly 80 percent of all grades given to undergraduates at Yale last academic year were A’s or A minuses, part of a sharp increase that began during the coronavirus pandemic and appears to have stuck, according to a new report.

The findings have frustrated some students, alumni and professors. What does excellence mean at Yale, they wonder, if most students get the equivalent of “excellent” in almost every class?

The effect of everybody getting an A is one thing, but why would any prof do such a thing? There are a host of reasons, running the gamut of academics who believe that this is some sort of kindness toward students or that grades are violence, to those who have neither the time nor patience to hear the whining and complaining from students and parents about their less than exemplary grade. “But you ruined my li’l darlin’s life!!!”

In one sense, this is a fully anticipated outgrowth of conflating academia with consumerism, that students are consumers paying for an education and if colleges want to keep selling their grossly overpriced product, they need to deliver what their consumers want. Academics aren’t scholars, but sales clerks delivering the goods.

But that wouldn’t stop professors who refused to succumb to the whims of whiners, who believed that  grade should reflect accomplishment rather than showing up and turning in assignments on time. So why are they not bringing down the cum?

There is a secondary dynamic happening on campus that creates an incentive for academics not to piss off the customers. Be a tough grader and students rate your poorly. Get rated poorly and students don’t take your class (because what sort of idiot Ely wants to get a [shudder] B?!?), and if students don’t enroll in your class, guess who’s out of a job? It may mean not getting tenure. It may mean being excessed. It may mean being shelved. Nobody needs a prof without students.

It’s not only the school enjoying that sweet, sweet tuition, whether it comes from parents ‘pockets or students’ loan agreements, but it’s the prof who knows that he’s ill-equipped to get a job in the real world because he can’t actually do anything and couldn’t tolerate the pressure to manage in a working world where you have to work all day long, whose most certain path to success is to hand out A’s like candy.

So what does a grade from Yale mean these days? If it’s below an A, it means you had to really suck in the course or the prof hated you. Of course, there are some schools and majors where grades are still real, but that puts their students are a disadvantage in the job market since employers aren’t nearly as astute about which schools give real grades and which are Yale-like. But then, that’s another lesson rarely taught in college anymore, that life can be pretty darn unfair.

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