Confessions of a Community College Dean

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Should college students be allowed to retake classes to improve their grades?

Jeff Selingo cast a skeptical eye on the practice in this piece last year (that I only discovered this week). He argued that it’s a form of grade inflation, and a sort of capitulation to the idea of students as customers.  As he put it,

The rise of grade forgiveness scans as yet another instance of colleges treating students as customers to be satisfied — similar to campus amenities such as luxurious dorms, palatial recreational facilities, and cornucopian dining halls. Indeed, there seems to be demand for do-overs. “Students are asking for it,” said Jack Miner, Ohio State University’s registrar and executive director of enrollment services. “We’re attracting and retaining stronger students and there’s more competition to get into majors and graduate schools, and a small change in their GPA can help.”

To Selingo, grade forgiveness is a symptom of a larger, mutual non-aggression pact:

Indeed, grade forgiveness is just another way that universities are responding to consumers’ expectations for higher education. Since students and parents expect a college degree to lead to a job, it is in the best interest of a school to churn out graduates who are as qualified as possible—or at least appear to be. On this, students’ and colleges’ incentives seem to be aligned.


I guess it would be churlish to point out that grade inflation is primarily located in elite and selective universities, as opposed to community colleges. In fact, we often get criticized for failing too many students. It’s hard to be simultaneously too easy and too hard, but there it is. You’d also be hard-pressed to find a lot of “luxurious dorms, palatial recreation facilities, and cornucopian dining halls” at most community colleges. If anything, the trend here is towards food pantries to help students who can’t afford to eat. But never mind that. Generalizing from the Harvards of the world is a common, if frustrating, mistake.

The fundamental academic objection to re-takes that Selingo treats as given has to do with signaling. If too many students get high grades, then how do we sort the strong from the weak?  

The most basic counterargument is that colleges aren’t fundamentally about signaling. They’re fundamentally about learning. If a student learned something the second time around, she still learned it. A “one strike and you’re out” policy promises to leave a lot of talent on the table. It also threatens to mislabel students as permanently incapable, when in fact, they were temporarily distracted.

Anyone who has sat in a dean’s office for any length of time can tell stories of students who had car accidents, family crises, chronic or abrupt illnesses, military deployments, and any number of other temporary issues that manifested in academic slumps. Given a second chance — the single greatest argument for community colleges — they turned it around. A too-strict application of “rigor” amounts to rewarding the students who show up healthy, well-funded, and lucky, and punishing the rest.  

The “signaling vs. learning” debate runs far deeper than any debate around course re-takes, but the position you take on the former predicts pretty closely your view of the latter. If our job is to sort for talent, then bashing colleges for low graduation rates makes no sense. Indeed, I have a few professors on my own campus who take low pass rates in their own courses as points of pride; they see it as proof that they’re rigorous. They believe strongly in the “signaling” model. On the other hand, if our job is to help educate the community, then writing off most people at the first sign of weakness is a betrayal of the mission. To riff on an old joke, God must love average students; that’s why He made so many of them.  

Back when less than ten percent of the population even went to college, the signaling vs. learning debate didn’t matter much; so few people had degrees at all that simply getting through was a signal in itself. (That’s why there was such a thing as a “gentleman’s C.”) As more students get degrees, though, they become less special. They maintain a wage premium, though as Tressie McMillan Cottom argued in Lower Ed, that’s more a function of the collapse of wages in the non-degree sector than it is a function of a degree premium as such. Credentials as a form of insurance draw more on signaling than on learning.  

As a believer in the learning model, I tend to see the collapse of wages in the non-degree sector as an economic problem, more than an educational problem. My grandfather dropped out of the ninth grade, but was able to get a unionized blue-collar job that allowed him to raise two kids and send them both to college. Today’s dropouts don’t usually have that option. That’s much more about economic policy and political choices than about course re-takes.  

Part of the reason that some of us have embraced co-requisite or streamlined remediation, Open Educational Resources, and a serious focus on student basic needs is a conviction that our basic problem as a society is not that we’re too educated; it’s that we leave too much talent on the table. By getting arbitrary obstacles out of the way, this argument goes, we can wind up with a smarter, better-educated, more skilled population, and that over time, that will lead to good things. Yes, some of the “gentlemen’s C” types may be annoyed, but that’s the price of progress. If we’ve crafted a political economy in which the very few hoard all the gains, and everyone else struggles not to backslide, that’s not fundamentally a problem of too many college degrees. It’s fundamentally a problem of politics. Solve that, and the course re-takes will take care of themselves.

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