April 18, 2012

One Tip for a High GPA

As I pointed out a few days ago, showing rising median grades does not itself qualify as proof of grade inflation. One point made by Brian Solomon '11 that can stand alone, however, is the gap between median grades in science, social science and humanities courses.

The broad takeaway: if you want a high GPA, major in the Arts & Humanities or Languages.

Why would I suggest that? Well, after playing around with some data provided by the College, I'm left with the following distribution of grades by discipline:

If you need, click the image to enlarge. The figure shows the smoothed distribution of grades by discipline; the grey line shows what a distribution around a B-average would approximately look like.

Let's leave that grey line aside for a minute. The story told by the figure is this: Language and Arts & Humanities courses distribute much higher GPAs than do classes in the Sciences or Social Sciences. The Language and Humanities courses also have much less variation in grade distribution (as one would expect considering that the courses are bumping up against the upper bound).

Given this suggestive evidence, I wanted to push the data a bit further. I estimated a multilevel linear model that controls for class enrollment, department, discipline, year and the average admission rate of all classes at Dartmouth in each year. (The last is included to roughly control for rising student quality -- it's a coarse measure, but it will do for now.)

The results are disheartening. Given the average enrollment in courses by discipline, Language courses and Arts & Humanities courses give out GPAs at 3.69 and 3.63 respectively. Compare that to the typical grades distributed by the Social Sciences (3.48) and Sciences (3.47).

On one hand, the differences are not huge. On the other, these differences matter. Consider this: by these estimates, one would expect about 50 percent of Arts & Humanities majors, and almost 57 percent of Language majors, to qualify for "cum laude" honors. Contrast that with about 28 percent of Social Science or Science majors.

Whether or not the rise in grades is caused by grade "inflation" true to its name (see my last post) is inconsequential here. What matters -- and what I find troubling -- is that grades have risen so much more quickly for Arts & Humanities and Languages than for other disciplines.

This phenomenon is nothing new. In fact, the gap between disciplines has existed for at least 40 years, and persists across institutions and across the public-private divide. That does not render it any less problematic. Some scholars, like Stuart Rojstaczer and Christopher Healey, suggest that this discrepancy disincentivizes promising students from entering the sciences at a time when we increasingly need them to.

This is not a critique of Arts & Humanities or Languages -- indeed, I chose French as one of my majors. But it seems that, if Dartmouth wants to take a lead on an issue in the academy, this issue is a prime candidate.

Any thoughts on how?

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous2:31 AM

    until I see a compelling study showing how science majors are categorically stupider than humanities majors, the median should be fixed in every class and in every department. We can leave the distribution problem for another day.