For students who are generally successful in their academic endeavors (read: law students), a B may be acceptable, but a C might as well be an F. It doesn’t matter that there are two more letters to go; C means you’ve slipped to average, and average is not what future CEOs, politicians, doctors, and lawyers want to be.
That’s why Professor Joshua Silverstein, of the William H. Bowen School of Law, wants to go ahead and make C the new F by revising grading curves upward to a B-. He gives two reasons.
Low grades damage students’ employment prospects
First, low grades damage students’ placement prospects. Employers frequently consider a job candidate’s absolute GPA in making hiring decisions. If a school systematically assigns inferior grades, its students are at an unfair disadvantage when competing for employment with students from institutions that award mostly A’s and B’s.
Good. Seriously. Isn’t the point of grades to give employers, among others, an objective gauge of a law students’ academic achievement? Yes, to answer my own question. That is actually Silverstein’s point. He illustrates the wide variation in law school grading curves, and points out that some schools have already been raising their grading curves, presumably to gain an advantage in the employment market. His argument is more for normalizing the grading curve across law schools at a B-.
Okay, fair point. But why a B-? Well, because it would make law students feel better about themselves.
Low grades make students sad
Second, marks in the C range injure students psychologically. Students perceive C’s as a sign of failure. Accordingly, when they receive such grades, their stress level is exacerbated in unhealthy ways. This psychological harm is both intrinsically problematic and compromises the educational process.
In his paper, he gets right to my initial point: “Given our students’ academic records in high school and college, is it any wonder that so many are crushed when they receive C’s in law school?” No, it is no wonder. Literally nobody wonders about this. When you have to compare a lot of high-performing people to one another, the scale shifts and some get Cs. It’s just how math works.
Where’s that tiny violin? I know I left it around here somewhere.
Silverstein admits that raising the GPA would effectively guarantee better grades to everyone, resulting in students who won’t bother working as hard. Good point. Maybe that’s a good reason not to pat everyone on the head and tell them they are doing a good job. Silverstein’s response to this argument boils down to because reasons. Here, he has no studies and few citations, and admits that “[f]rankly, I do not think there is sufficient evidence to answer [this] question.”
Preparing students for the pressures of law practice
By the way, doesn’t patting every student on the head and telling them “good job” do a really poor job preparing them to practice law, where even the best lawyers fail regularly? Law practice is frequently pass/fail, even in settlement. If law students don’t learn to cope with a C in law school, how will they learn to cope with Ds and Fs when they start practicing?
Don’t worry, Silverstein has the answer:
The signature problem with this line of reasoning is that the premise is wrong: Most of our students are not adults; they are adolescents. A majority of those who enroll in law school are between the ages of twenty-one and twenty-four. And it is now well accepted that adolescence continues into the mid-twenties. Given that the bulk of our pupils have not yet reached full maturity, I question the efficacy of C grades as a tool for measuring law students’ capacity to handle challenges they will face after graduation. Moreover, C’s inaccurately convey to students that they lack the skills necessary to be competent practitioners.
The emphasis is mine, because Silverstein never backs up this statement or explains why he thinks law students who lack the mental fortitude to cope with Cs are nevertheless capable of becoming competent lawyers. Maybe they are, but I have my doubts. I think one of the few things law school does a good job at is preparing students for the rigors of law practice by putting them under a lot of pressure and criticizing them when they deserve it.
Law schools are out of touch with other graduate programs
Silverstein’s most compelling point, to me, is not one of his two primary reasons. In his paper, he surveys graduate programs, most of which require a B-average to remain in good standing. Law schools are out of step, he argues, in setting “passing” at 2.0.
He’s right, but I think there is an obvious reason why: law schools make a lot of money by keeping students in school. The lower the passing grade, the more tuition it can keep raking in. Law schools are like Division 1 sports, but without the incentive to cut under-performing players.
Besides, grading curves and good-standing requirements are not the same thing. Artificially inflating GPAs is not the way to bring law schools in line with other graduate programs. Raising standards and “cutting” under-performing law students would do it, though, and it would probably have the important side effect of increasing the number of competent lawyers in practice.