What should a university degree represent?

Over the past few years, there has been an intensifying debate over the role of university education—whether universities are institutions of pure learning, or simply a place to acquire a credential after completing a certain amount of coursework. Though the topic has generated a fair amount of discussion about what universities should do to motivate learning, most of the talk about it actually misses the point. Because higher education allows—and requires—more individual choice than primary or secondary education, what really matters to this debate over learning and motivation is the individual student.

In his 2002 piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education, entitled “The Dangerous Myth of Grade Inflation,” Alfie Kohn argues that the entire debate over the issue of grade inflation reveals an inherent problem with grading systems at universities.  These grading scales make students focus more on the number they receive at the end of the term than the material they were supposed to be absorbing in class. Kohn proposes completely eliminating grades, allowing students to focus on the actual course material.

This “no grades” philosophy prompts the inevitable question: how, then, can we determine whether students are learning? How much was understood at the end of class compared to the beginning? Even if we assume that these concerns are valid, there remains a major tension in the “do away with grades” argument in the realm of higher education.

This is an age of easily-accessible knowledge, with full and free courses offered online by institutions like MIT and Harvard. Now that world-class institutions are making their educational material freely available online, those who want to take time off and learn without the pressure to compete for a number can do so. The movement to bring this philosophy of grade-free education to large universities, then, reflects an implicit acceptance of the importance of the degree as a “credential” certifying learning.

Some economists suggest that university completion—with a satisfactory transcript—is actually a signaling mechanism. The actual gain in hard, quantifiable “skills” (e.g. critical and analytical thinking), among university graduates is generally small. Rather, students attend university to “signal” to an employer that they were already competent in these skills—the GPA signaling their degree of competence. As economist Bryan Caplan asks, “Which would do more for your career: A Princeton education, but no diploma, or a Princeton diploma, but no education?” Signaling theorists would say the latter.

Several prominent universities, such as Hampshire College, have switched to a “narrative” method of evaluation. Instead of a numerical GPA, instructors write an evaluation of what the course was supposed to accomplish, how well the individual accomplished those tasks, and perhaps whether the student improved over the semester.  Other universities supplement their GPAs with a similar evaluation. Upon considering both of these views, what becomes apparent is that the major factor in this equation is not the university, or employers, or even the post-secondary education system, but rather the individual.

Though a cliché, one gets out of anything what one puts into it, and this happens to be especially true in the case of higher education. Many university students choose to focus simply on their attractiveness to employers, while the choice to go to an institution focused on tests, or one with narrative evaluations, is a personal one. So is the choice of one’s classes. Debating what universities should do with grading systems misses the point, because education at university is driven by the choices of the individual. Therefore, to wring one’s hands about unmotivated students at major universities would point to a problem with their mindset, not with the grading system.

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