For the most part, Yalies don’t talk about grades. But that doesn’t mean we don’t care about them. Though they don’t come up often, their true impact connects like a punch in the gut whenever someone casually makes a comment like, “Gotta get that GPA up for law school, am I right?” We see a letter on a page and can feel content, terrified, elated, exasperated, dizzy, nauseous, apathetic. More than we’d like to admit, grades have a huge influence on our experience of Yale. But as the intelligent, capable, deeply perceptive students that make up Yale’s student body, we shouldn’t let grades have the power over us that they do. Our reverence for them impedes true intellectual development, and they distract our focus from the most basic goal of higher education: to learn.
We care so much about grades not because they have any innate value, but rather because they symbolize achievement. Grades are a convenient checkpoint that can wrap up our complex motivations for wanting to succeed academically. For me, doing well in school was my way of thanking my family for their sacrifices. Some of my friends care about school so that after they graduate, they can secure a high-paying job to provide for their families. Others are motivated by a love of learning, which they hope to further pursue by attending graduate school. Some just want to make enough money to buy a yacht and sail off to Cabo. Though these examples may be oversimplified, they share a common thread: we care about our grades because we care about our futures. Yet while there’s no doubt that doing well in college can help one succeed afterwards—learning how to think critically, stretch our minds, and work hard definitely benefit any career—it’s time we question whether grades accurately measure academic success.
To do so, we first need to think about what academic success really means. Because most concerns about grades regard future employment, it makes sense to consider academic success from an economic perspective. Economists refer to two main theories on the purpose of higher education.
One is called the Signaling Model, which claims that academic success acts as a flashing light to employers saying, “Take me! I’m a capable, smart, and dedicated worker who will turn into a productive employee!” In this framework, we aspire to get good grades so that we can prove we’re capable. These grades don’t necessarily mean that you’ve learned anything—just that you were capable, smart, and dedicated enough to do well in the class.
The problem with the Signaling Model is that grades are not accurate signals; in fact, they’re incredibly arbitrary. Their distribution differs per department, per class, and even per teaching fellow. An A can be nearly identical to an A-, yet the opportunities given to a student graduating with a GPA of 4.0 can differ drastically from those given to a student graduating with a GPA of 3.67. This disparity is especially true in classes with curves. For instance, if an engineer gets a 70 percent on an exam about building bridges, she can still receive an A in the class. Does that mean that even though she’ll be deemed a capable engineer, she’ll only be able to build 70 percent of a bridge?
If the Signaling Model doesn’t provide a good basis for the purpose of grades, let’s turn to the alternative: the Human Capital Model. This model argues that the purpose of education is to guide students in deepening their intellectual capabilities, strengthening their work ethic, and developing more creative thought patterns. If grades were an accurate metric for the Human Capital Model, a student who truly challenged themselves would receive good grades.
But can grades accurately reflect personal growth? While they can certainly measure one’s understanding of a given subject at one point in time, they lack the specificity to reflect how much one is learning over the course of a semester. Too often, students focus solely on their final grade, rather than how much they’ve stepped outside of their comfort zone to complete it, or whether they have truly learned something new. I know many students who would rather write a paper on a topic they’re comfortable with and get an A instead of taking a risk. In this case, the A doesn’t represent how much the student’s knowledge or depth of understanding grew, but rather that they are able to articulate what they knew all along. The exception would be the student who genuinely pours herself into her work and gets an A. When this happens, however, the A is less important than the work it took to get it.
Nevertheless, grades can limit the development of our individual interests. How many times have you been told not to worry “for now” about a certain challenging topic, solely because it won’t be on a test? Sure, students who are deeply interested will do research outside of class, but the fast-paced nature of classes often means that if you pause to linger on a topic on your own, you’ll fall behind the rest of the class. It’s rare to find a student who rushes through an assignment, does fine, and later regrets it because she’s missing out on her intellectual development. Our reverence for grades as the authority on all things academic means we can overlook what the Human Capital Model mandates as truly important: intellectual growth.
The Signaling Model and the Human Capital Model may seem too extreme, or overly simplistic. However, these models capture two theoretical poles about the purpose of education. Still, students may be tempted to see grades as a motivator, given that employers care about them. Why not go along with a bad system for now if it’ll help you get a job later? But this type of thinking comes at immense costs. It means you’re never really able to engage in your work as an end in itself. You’re never able to take intellectual risks because you’re scared they might mess up your flashing light, your GPA.
As future leaders in the labor market, we are clinging too closely to the status quo that the labor market dictates rather than setting new standards for what it means to think critically and creatively. We are all bright students with individual perspectives, and we shouldn’t be settling for such an inaccurate and insufficient standard.