No, this post is not about financial bailouts. It’s about educational bailouts — specifically, the policy my university has for dropping courses and replacing bad grades when a student retakes a course in which he or she did poorly. The week before spring break, I had about 20% of my Industrial Organization and Public Policy class drop. I was a little annoyed about it, but I tried not to take it personally. It’s not exactly an easy class, and for some students with hectic schedules, it might just be too much work. I can’t make it any easier without feeling like I’m not doing justice to the material — if I don’t require students to be able to solve for the Cournot and Stackelberg equilibria in a duopoly, I could be accused of dereliction of duty. But it got me thinking about the entire system of adding and dropping here at SCSU and MnSCU as a whole, and how horribly it is set up. It’s unfair to students, professors, and the entire concept of education. That may be a bit strong of a statement, but hear me out.
Here’s how the drop system works at SCSU. Students have one week of class to determine if they like a class and they can drop with no penalty. That’s it. One week. At U.C. Berkeley, we had about 6 weeks — enough time to go through a few assignments or an exam and see if the class was something you could actually handle. I remember one course, Econ 101A (Intermediate Microeconomics with Calculus) where, after the first midterm exam, enough people dropped the class that the waitlist for the course was down to zero. At that point, the professor said, “Congratulations. I had to keep the course tough to get people to drop, so I’ll make it easier from here on out.” Here at SCSU, as a student you really have no opportunity to see what you’re getting into until it’s too late. If students drop after a week but before the half-way point in the semester, they get a W on their transcript. The W does not factor into the student’s GPA, but obviously it doesn’t look good either. Typically, students will re-take the course again to replace the W with an actual grade. The problem is that if students drop too many courses, they can end up having to repay financial aid to the state and federal government.
So what do a lot of students do? They don’t want to drop and get the W, especially if it is a course they need for their major — they have to take the course over anyway, and there may be financial aid implications (explained below). So they ride the course out the entire semester, barely showing up in the end because they know they’re going to fail anyway, and then they take the final exam. I fail them, they take the class over again, and they get the better grade. Everybody wins, except for the taxpayers who are partially funding their education, who end up paying twice for the class: once when the student failed it and again when they take it again to replace their grade. We have full replacement here at SCSU, so if you get an F and then retake the course and get an A, the only grade that impacts your GPA is the A. (The F still shows up on the transcript, but unless you’re applying to graduate school, nobody will ever know…) There is basically no penalty for taking a class and failing (other than the fact that a student will take longer to graduate)…unless the student stops coming to class. See, when I give a failing grade, I actually have to assign one of three different types of grades. The standard F is for someone who went the whole semester and just did poorly. Then there is the FW, which is given to students who do not drop (probably because it’s past the drop deadline so they can’t drop) but who stop coming to class or doing online assignments. And there is the FN, for students who are enrolled but never even showed up in the beginning. It’s all very complicated, but I know that if a student is in class until the last week and then stops showing up, they get an FW and can get in financial aid trouble and may have to repay financial aid. But if they go the whole way and take the final exam, they get the F and keep their money. I used to wonder why some students who I hadn’t seen since the second midterm exam actually showed up to take the final exam and bombed it, but now I know why. If they don’t take the final exam, a professor might interpret that as a drop and give them an FW and they might take a financial aid hit. It makes perfect sense. And if I were in their shoes, I would do the same thing. We have a system that basically tells students that if a course is not required (my course is not required for majors), they should just drop the course and take the W and take something else next semester. And if it is required, so they’ll have to take the course again, they should stay in the course and just fail it. That’s why so few people ever drop my principles courses even when they’re doing horribly – they’re required courses for most of the people who take them, so they’ll have to take them again anyway.
I understand the financial aid angle — if students blow off a course and aren’t really in school, they shouldn’t get loan and grant money as if they were taking school seriously; they should have to pay that money back. I get that. But you can’t combine that policy with the full replacement of grades and not realize that it gives students in required courses an incentive to phone it in for the last month in the class and just take the F.
I have two recommendations to make the system better. First, the deadline to drop without getting a W should be extended beyond just the first week. Give students at least a month — let them actually get a feel for the course before you punish them by giving them a W. Second, the free replacement of any grade needs to be changed. Knowing that an F can be replaced completely, students that know they are struggling in a class during a semester might as well just blow off the class completely. They’ll have more time for their other classes and can salvage those grades. At some schools, including Berkeley while I was there, a student that takes a course more than once gets the average of the two grades. That gives students the incentive to learn as much as possible and actually take the class seriously, even if they know they might need to retake it later. That F might turn into a D with a little bit of effort, and the student will no doubt learn more in the process. Or the school could use some weighted average, putting more emphasis on the better grade. But there should at least be some penalty for failing a class or else students will do exactly what they do now — take advantage of the system.
I’m interested to hear what students have to say about these policies — please comment if you have any thoughts about this.
P.S. Sorry it’s been a while since my last post — it was Spring Break and I was trying to relax a little bit and catch up on some things.