It’s Time for Swarthmore to Tell Us Our GPAs

French course with Alexandra Gueydan-Turek on the campus of Swarthmore College on Thursday, April 25, 2019, in Swarthmore, Pa. (Laurence Kesterson / staff photographer)

Swarthmore prides itself on fostering a community of collaborative, not competitive, learning. As of this point in my sophomore year, I agree that the college has been relatively successful in creating an academic environment in which intellectual curiosity is rewarded over the pure desire to get ahead.

While part of this culture undoubtedly arises from the attitudes of the applicants the admissions staff chooses to admit – they cite “intellectual curiosity and an enthusiasm for learning” as one of their most sought-after qualities in a Swattie – institutional practices clearly play an additional role in negating cutthroat tendencies. 

One example of a long-standing tradition that serves this end is the pass-fail first semester. The first semester of your first year is a time to establish who you are going to be as a student and encouraging students to focus on the educational aspect of class, rather than any aspirations for quantifiable success, is critical to creating a supportive community of learners. 

Other practices aiming to keep our focus on intellectual curiosity over numbers include the college’s lack of a dean’s list or class ranks, measures that are certainly productive in keeping students from battling intensely over grades, rather than embracing learning for learning’s sake.

However, one practice that seeks to achieve this goal makes much less sense to me. Why does the college refuse to tell us our GPAs?

It’s not as if GPAs are foreign concepts to Swarthmore students: we were all once grade-hungry high school students applying to selective colleges during a time of continuously decreasing acceptance rates. While Swarthmore does practice a holistic admissions review process, it would be plainly untrue to assert that grades do not play a strong role in an applicant’s chances of admission.

GPAs continue to play a role in our lives at and beyond Swarthmore. There is a GPA requirement for graduating from the college or even declaring certain majors. Additionally, many Swarthmore students are going on to medical, law, or graduate school, all of which also have stringent GPA requirements, particularly if you’re aiming for selective schools.

In an ideal world, Swarthmore students would be truly indifferent to the quantitative aspects of our work at the college. We could acknowledge that not only do students learn and apply information in different ways, but professors across departments and courses also have different grading policies and habits. We can collectively understand that these two factors combined render our GPAs essentially meaningless when it comes to determining our academic capabilities.

Perhaps some students have internalized this belief, never calculate their GPAs, and focus only on the more meaningful aspects of their education at Swarthmore. However, I can confidently say that most Swarthmore students care about their GPA to some degree.

And yet, the college will not make GPAs accessible to students on any platform, including transcripts.

The problem is not that the college does not calculate our GPAs. In fact, the Registrar’s Office provides a GPA calculator and detailed instructions on how to calculate GPA, so that we can end up with the exact same number as the college does. Calculating your GPA is not a difficult task, but it seems nonsensical that we would all spend even a few minutes doing something that the college is already doing, in the interest of preserving an attitude that Swarthmore students just do not have.

At the end of the day, it seems unnecessary (and somewhat performative) to make students jump through such an easy hoop for a number we will all need to know at one point or another. Until we can make a genuine cultural shift away from GPAs – a shift that would need to occur outside of the Swarthmore bubble – it just makes sense for Swarthmore to put GPAs on our transcripts.

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