That was the headline in a recent New York Times article on grading in the nation’s graduate schools. The long-dreaded F grade has virtually disappeared from grad school life, the Education Life article said. When course failure looms, students are usually given the option of withdrawing.
“You probably aren’t going to find graduate school transcripts with F’s on them,” said Robert Neuman, former academic dean at Marquette University.
Grade inflation is also widespread, the article said. Seventy-five percent of grades in master’s programs are A’s, 22 percent are B’s and 3 percent are C’s, according to a Furman University researcher’s study. Less than 1 percent are D’s and F’s.
The explanation given was fairly simple: Schools are businesses and master’s program are lucrative, so keeping students is essential. A first-year student who drops out of NYU’s graduate film school costs the school $150,000 over the three-year length of the program. Multiply that too many times and you have a university in trouble, especially during this economic downturn.
I can’t say the article shocked me. I’ve been reading about rising grade inflation and declining academic standards for years. But still, I was surprised — and disappointed. I like the measuring rod approach to life, the world of high standards, achievement and accountability for performance.
I grew up in a home where failure wasn’t an option. Heck, not going to college wasn’t even an option. If you came home with a grade under 90, you were grounded until your grade came up. One of my sisters scored a 99 on the state high school exam in chemistry. My father, a high school chemistry teacher, was able to discover the one question she missed. My sister was reminded for years that the inventor of the Bunsen burner was – Robert Bunsen.
I suppose this background, coupled with biblical calls to develop one’s talents, explains my liking for competitive sports. The rules are clear, the standards are explicit, and accomplishment is measurable. You always know where you stand on the playing field and why. When the big guys at Braddock Park wouldn’t let me play on the main basketball court, I knew I had to work my up from the pebbled asphalt court filled with cracks. When I got a sharp elbow in the stomach at age 12 from a guy 10 years older, I got a quick lesson in meritocracy.
Failure on the court was always an option. Failure forces an immediate confrontation between your dreams and your talents. Michael Jordan likes to say he missed thousands of jump shots to become the great shooter he was. Many others miss thousands of jump shots and never rack up any court success at all. Sports force you to look honestly at who you are and what you can do. They prepare you for a world where results count.
I don’t know what lesson grad students get from a transcript filled with W’s instead of F’s. I do know I hope they don’t become heart surgeons.