Are university grades completely arbitrary?

Matt Coutts
Daily Brew

Young adults who find themselves in university after graduating high school are likely on the path to a better education — just don't be fooled into thinking those grades mean anything.

The Pew Research Centre found that more young adults in the United States hold university degrees than ever before. Canada has seen similar progress, suggesting those seeking to stand out from the crowd need to take another step up the education ladder.

Which all makes sense, because the evidence that suggests undergrad is just another four years of high school is mounting. Questioning the value of a university education is not a new phenomenon. As tuition costs rise and the value of a university degree loses its lustre, it is natural to have doubts.

And one can't help but doubt the fallibility of Canada's higher education system in the wake of two incidents in which final grades are nearly arbitrary.

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The Montreal Gazette reports that a Concordia University student is suing the institution after his grade of A- was allegedly dropped to a B+ because the class had hit its quota for top marks. William Groombridge told the newspaper that his professor agreed he deserved the A- but his manuscript came back with the lower grade.

In the case of this alleged grade quota, the change appears arbitrary and devoid of any statistical legitimacy. This was not a bell curve, it was a "ring the bell, let's go home" quick fix after too many students scored well.

In an unrelated incident at Queen's University, a psychology professor sparked debate by introducing a "civility clause" that penalized a student's final grade if they were caught misbehaving in class.

The National Post reports the psychology professor was trying to "manage incivility in the classroom" and ensure her teaching assistants were treated with respect.

Jill Jacobson told the newspaper's Sarah Boesveld:

The only other option that we had had thus far — the threat of being talked to by the professor — carries no weight and actually can make things worse for the TAs because it undermines their authority.

It is a shame that this professor felt a lower-than-deserved score was the only way to keep university students in line. It is more shameful that she may be right, but anticipating high-school-like behaviour from university students is not going to resolve the problem.

The fear of punishment under this "civility clause" could stop students from engaging in healthy debate in class or questioning the course content — two things that should be expected from engaged students. Silent, disengaged students may not get docked for disruptive behaviour, but they are not doing themselves any favours in the long run.

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Earlier this year, the Globe and Mail's Jeffrey Simpson defended the value of the university degree, stating those with a post-secondary education were still more likely to find work and ended up with higher salaries than those with only high school diplomas.

This may be so, but it is time to stop pretending an undergraduate degree is anything more than another four years of high school. Or that those grades are an infallible sign of what you have learned.