Lane: Let’s Invest in Students. Drop the Medians

By allowing departments to enforce maximum median grades, Dartmouth only hurts its brand, mission and students’ future prospects and mental health.

by Thomas Lane | 10/28/22 4:10am

This column is featured in the 2022 Homecoming special issue.

I once read a post on social media from a Dartmouth student, which of course I can no longer find, about ECON 20, “Econometrics” — an economics major requirement which is notorious among students for its difficulty and, of course, its department-required B+ median. It went something like this: “No matter what you do, lo and behold the inevitable B+ arrives on your transcript. There is no escaping it.” The author phrased it better than that, but you get the point. No matter how hard you work, you end up stuck with the all-powerful median. What’s the point of trying for an A then?

I understand why professors may want an enforced median. They may feel that it makes their class look more reputable when outsiders see it on transcripts. Plus, they are validated by a perception of difficulty for their course. It certainly helps when the department is the one setting the median, rather than the professors themselves — as they can then deflect blame to a mysterious higher power when students are unhappy. In theory, it also helps those students who score above the course median, giving outsiders a sense of how the student performed compared to their peers. This theoretically encourages students to learn more to outperform others. Yet this is a very shortsighted and flawed analysis of the policy.

If Dartmouth were a large university with students of a wide variety of academic aptitudes, I would be less inclined to criticize medians. In that case, medians would simply reflect the student body. But that is not the case. We have a microscopic 6.2% acceptance rate as of the Class of 2026. The student body reflects a tiny sliver of the very top students in the world, and by forcing us to fight against one another, the College inevitably ends up splitting hairs in judging the winners. Comparing apples to oranges is one thing, but our medians attempt to compare state fair blue-ribbon-winning apples to one another.

Many may worry about grade inflation. Without medians, they claim, grades will be meaningless, since surely most students will get all As! My response is — of course they will! Again, Ivy League students are the cream of the crop. Of course they will do exceptionally well. That is a correct reflection of their abilities. Those still unconvinced might reply that in the past, student grades were typically lower than they are now. That is indeed true, but back then acceptance rates were far higher for both Dartmouth and its peer institutions. In 1996, for example, Dartmouth admitted a whopping 20% of applicants. As the College’s selectivity has risen, so too should overall grades. Better students mean better grades. Grade inflation, therefore, is possibly a fake phenomenon. I’m not foolish enough to pretend grading standards haven’t changed at all over the years — but I would argue that, if anything, they have gotten harder as education seems to focus more on critical thinking and problem solving skills and less on rote memorization of facts that can now be easily Googled.

How do medians harm the College? The College benefits when its students succeed. There’s a reason Dartmouth’s PR department loves to broadcast when students have big achievements. They make Dartmouth look good, too! Successful, happy students go on to win prestigious awards, gain admittance to excellent graduate schools, land impressive jobs and donate money back to the College. By artificially depreciating the effort students put into their education, the College is really only shooting itself in the foot. It gains nothing in the never-ending rankings game with other colleges. Dartmouth without medians is still in the Ivy League, with a miniscule acceptance rate, high-flying faculty and a thriving research climate with robust opportunities for students. Dartmouth wins when it accurately tells the world how smart its students are — not when it short-changes them. Self-sabotage is an embarassing choice for a school as storied as Dartmouth.

How do medians harm students? I won’t delve too deeply into it, since Matthew Capone ’24 already wrote about that in his column last May. But I will say that medians pit students against one another and make those who score below them, especially when they nonetheless worked very hard, feel quite inadequate. With the consistently abysmal track record this institution has on the mental health front, it needs everything it can get to right the ship. No professor’s “academic freedom” to make their class extra difficult is worth the cost students must pay.

What should the solution be? Medians should be replaced with minimum medians, in which the course median cannot fall below a certain grade. In this case, they protect students from poorly taught or otherwise capricious grading without imposing unnecessary hardship. Many STEM classes actually need minimums to keep students’ grades reasonable, and so they can’t be entirely thrown out. Professors should be encouraged to grade students based on their individual achievement without regard to how their classmates perform. I’ve heard several of my professors complain that medians force them to give students grades lower than they would have otherwise received. If most students do exceedingly well — as they likely will, given the caliber of students here — professors should feel proud to award them all high grades. That’s not bad!

At the same time, medians shouldn’t be reflected on transcripts so that no professor feels pressured to make their class look more legitimate. If they are doing their jobs well — and from my time here I can say most are — their classes will be rigorous, and they shouldn’t have any reason to doubt that. Students benefit from median-less transcripts, too. Those who work hard but nonetheless get a grade lower than half their classmates won’t face unfair judgment. If a B or B- isn’t a bad grade — as I remember my undergraduate dean telling us during first-year orientation —then it shouldn’t look like one on our transcripts. I can personally say that the class I learned the most from here at Dartmouth had an A median. I was free to learn to my heart’s content without fear of an unfair outcome — and I did. Enforced medians are a relic of faulty logic, bad tempers and ill will. It’s time for them to go.

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