Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Scholarships, Grade Inflation, and Motivation (Michael Simkovic)

In her latest post, Deborah Merritt maintains that scholarships conditioned on maintaining a minimum GPA or class ranking are troubling when used by law schools, even though such conditions are routinely used by other educational institutions and state government programs.

According to Professor Merritt, the problem is that the mandatory curve in law school is such that not all students can keep their conditional scholarships.  But Professor Merritt presents no evidence that conditional scholarships retention rates are any higher for undergraduate or government programs than for law schools.  She infers nefarious motives on the part of law schools based only on the fact that law schools require students to compete for scholarship funds that are in limited supply.

Perhaps Professor Merritt believes that competition for scarce and valuable resources is inherently immoral.  She does not explain why this is so or whether these views apply outside the context of law school scholarships.  If only one out of ten associates hired at a law firm will make partner and earn $1 million per year, is it inherently immoral to ask associates to work hard and compete for the opportunity?  If only one actor will be selected for a part, is it immoral to ask more than one actor to try out?  Is any competition for promotions, clients, or recognition immoral?  If so, we are living in a wicked, wicked world.

Perhaps Professor Merritt believes it is inherently immoral to limit “A” grades to students whose academic performance is superior to most of their peers, since an “A” is simply a data point and can be replicated and distributed to everyone at zero marginal cost.  But liberally handing out “A” grades is costly for students and employers.  Labor economics studies suggest that grade inflation is associated with reduced effort by students and reduced learning.  Educators are not doing students or employers favors if they allow high grades to become a birthright rather than a marker of distinction that must be earned through hard work and exceptional performance.  

Statistician Valen Johnson and others have argued that many perverse incentives in undergraduate education could be ameliorated if mandatory grading curves were imposed across majors and grade inflation and grade shopping were stamped out.  If certain undergraduate majors have succumbed to the pressure to inflate grades in order to keep student-customers happy, that is quite troubling.  Employers will likely distrust grades from such programs, question how much students have learned, and harbor suspicions about the work ethic of students who would opt into programs known for awarding easy “A’s” for minimal effort.  Programs that have resisted the pressure to inflate grades and maintained more rigorous academic standards are more likely to retain the confidence of employers and to teach students knowledge and skills that are valued in the labor market.  Indeed, grades are notoriously lower in STEM fields than in the humanities, even though STEM majors spend more time studying and have higher standardized test scores. 

Professor Merritt suggests that law students do not require any incentives to work harder, since they are all already studying at full capacity.  Some students presumably are, but there are many law students who can and should focus more on their studies.  A roll call in most classes will reveal students whose attendance is well below 100 percent—so much so that the ABA now requires law schools to enforce minimum class attendance policies.  When students do attend class, a visit to the back of a classroom and a glance at computer screens will reveal some students who are not giving their undivided attention.  Cold calling will reveal students who have not done the required reading—although they do appear to be well informed about the latest sports and celebrity news.  Some students have family or employment obligations that understandably limit the amount of time they can devote to their studies.  But in the evening, while some student who are less constrained are studying, a stroll past the local bar will reveal others who are spending their time on less academic pursuits.  

Shortly after graduation, some students who did not show up for class enough, did not pay attention enough, did not prepare for class enough, did not review after class enough, and did not seek out their professors when they were confused will find that they have not passed the bar exam and will not be permitted to practice law until they learn how to work hard and study.  Others will find, rather less dramatically, that what they did not work hard enough to learn in law school could have made them more valuable to their employers.

Law schools can observe LSAT scores and undergraduate GPAs, but they cannot directly observe students’ work ethic and drive to succeed.  Just as law students want to attend the best law schools, law schools want to educate the best students who have the motivation to become leaders in law, business, and government. 

Recent studies suggests that motivation is a better predictor of academic performance and professional success than standardized test scores. 

Given the goal of attracting and retaining the best students, rewarding motivation and ability seems like a reasonable policy.  Anecdotes notwithstanding, the evidence suggests that most college and law students understand the terms of conditional scholarships well. 


Guest Blogger: Michael Simkovic, Legal Profession, Of Academic Interest, Professional Advice, Science, Student Advice, Web/Tech, Weblogs | Permalink