Monday, November 14, 2011

When the proxy becomes more important than reality

I am experiencing technical difficulties posting the podcast. While I sort that out, I am going to beat a dead horse shed light on another improper use of statistics.

Here's another quote from Why Science Majors Change Their Minds (It’s Just So Darn Hard):
The latest research also suggests that there could be more subtle problems at work, like the proliferation of grade inflation in the humanities and social sciences, which provides another incentive for students to leave STEM majors. It is no surprise that grades are lower in math and science, where the answers are clear-cut and there are no bonus points for flair.
[Aside: That's a totally unfair and ignorant comment about flair. Flair matters a lot in STEM. I've gotten some pretty nice approbation from professors (and peers) because of the atypical way I solved some homework and exam questions. Some even offered to write letters of recommendation for grad school, despite my mediocre overall grades.

In STEM, flair means solving problems with elegant and/or unconventional, but correct approaches. Remember the emails in climategate with praise like "slick trick"? That's praise for good work, not evidence of a cover-up.]

What is the point of giving grades? Is it to spur students to work harder? To distinguish the stronger students from the rest? To measure the amount learning or mastery of a subject? A progress report?

Did we really mean to turn GPA into a Hogwarts-like sorting hat?

Why do we fetishsize absolute GPAs? Why do employers give hard floors on GPAs when selecting students for interviews, regardless of differences in median GPAs and difficulty of fields of study? Why do scholarships--even the largest need-based scholarship at my alma mater--require a minimum GPA of 3.5 (higher than the average GPA of science majors at the school)?

In the article above, many possible solutions were suggested such as raising the average grades in science classes to match the easy grading in humanities, social sciences and business. However, the simplest thing to do is to just not attach such extreme importance to absolute GPA.

Science departments aren't wrong to grade toughly. Why should a department compress the dynamic range of grades? (If you don't know what a dynamic range is, then you weren't a STEM major.)

I found these two great visualizations from It is well worthwhile to visit the site and read their research and methodology in full. I will wait.

There is about a 0.3 point difference in GPA between natural science and humanities. If you were a STEM major receiving a Berkeley Undergraduate Scholarship, the largest UCB program for need-based financial aid, and you were in the top 1/3 of your class, your GPA would still be too low to receive need-based financial aid.

Why punish the poor students for choosing hard majors? Don't we want all majors to be open to rich and poor students alike?
Read also, the 5 hardest and easiest college majors by GPA.
5 Lowest Grade Point Averages
  1. Chemistry 2.78 GPA
  2. Math 2.90 GPA
  3. Economics 2.95 GPA
  4. Psychology 2.98 GPA
  5. Biology 3.02 GPA
5 Highest Grade Point Averages
  1. Education 3.36 GPA
  2. Language 3.34 GPA
  3. English 3.33 GPA
  4. Music 3.30 GPA
  5. Religion 3.22 GPA
Is the average Chemistry major that much dumber than the average Education major?

Ironically, I was a Regents' and Chancellor's scholar while at CAL. It's the most selective academic scholarship for undergraduates:
The Regents’ and Chancellor’s Scholarship carries the highest honor awarded by the University of California, Berkeley to entering undergraduates.
Yet, the minimum GPA required is 3.0, lower than the need-based Berkeley Undergraduate Scholarship. I don't mean to pick on BUS, the California Alumni Association's leadership scholarship has an identical 3.5 GPA cutoff. I guess they think that STEM students lack leadership potential. (IMHO, I would like to see fewer elected officials who are trained as lawyers and more trained in STEM.)

While I was at Cal, I asked an administrator for the RCS program why their academic scholarship would have a lower GPA cutoff than the nonacademic ones. She replied, "Our students choose harder majors and we don't think they should be penalized for that." How refreshing!

Another way that the hard floors on GPA reinforce the gap between rich and poor is that you can buy a higher GPA simply by attending a private school.

Yup, you can buy a 0.4 point boost to your GPA, helping you land that job over the plebes at State U.

What can you do to help?
I called UC Berkeley to complain, but the nice folks at the University Relations office are all humanities majors and had no idea that STEM departments grade so much harder. They thought that a GPA of 3.5 should be a cakewalk.

I was getting nowhere with them so I decided to start a need-based financial aid program for STEM majors with no minimum GPA cutoff. Students need only be making adequate progress, and their academic departments get to decide what is adequate, based on the rigor of the department and how hard the student is working.

Thus, the bootstrap fund was born. It is not an endowment. Whatever money comes in is awarded that year to STEM majors at UC Berkeley that demonstrate financial need. In case you want to join me in this crusade, just send a check with a letter that looks something like this.

Your Name

City, State Zip


The Board of Trustees

The Regents of the University of California

c/o UC Berkeley, University Relations

2080 Addison St, #4200

Berkeley, CA 94720-4200

Dear Ladies and Gentlemen:

To help the University of California, Berkeley uphold its commitment to excellence and opportunity, and in consideration of the generosity of other alumni and friends of the campus, I wish to support the University in the following manner.

I hereby give to the University of California, Berkeley the sum of X Thousand Dollars ($X,000). Payment will be in the form of cash, marketable securities, or other property acceptable to the Regents.

Please use my gift to create a fund to be known as The Bootstrap Fund. The Bootstrap Fund shall be used at the discretion of Financial Aid to support students pursuing STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) fields of study and who are in good academic standing and demonstrate financial need.

I understand that under campus policy the University will assess a one-time administrative fee of not more than 2 ½%.

Please indicate your acceptance of this gift by signing and returning to me a copy of this letter.


Your Name

Related posts:
Bad Dad and I have been accused of having a competitive marriage. I beg to differ. When I pointed out that his alma mater, MIT, beats Cal in grade inflation (see the links by specific schools at the bottom of the page), he protested.

It's notable that the growth in Cal student population, like the national trend, has been nearly entirely in fields with high GPAs and easier coursework. So, if you compare just the science departments against each other, the grade inflation might be even greater. But he insists that couldn't be the case.

Some men just can't win graciously.


  1. I like your scholarship idea. I'll have to think about whether to add that to our charity list. I've been wavering about donating to the scholarship fund that paid my way through school. It seems that I should, but there are so many good causes....

  2. My husband teaches high school AP Math (Calculus). He's had many arguments with parents who want their kids to get straight A's and are afraid that AP classes will result in lower marks that will hurt their child's college entrance chances. We have two generations of students who have been taught that maths and sciences are just too hard unless you're a genius. Nothing beats sciences and math for teaching deductive reasoning. The consequent lack of reasoning ability in students who avoid the hard sciences in both high school and college is crippling democracy. I strong believe that a lack of critical reasoning ability has contributed to the rising influence of ideology in politics over the past thirty years.


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