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How The Dastardly “D” Prevents Getting to the “E” in Equity

Time and again we in higher education see polls that show students are not prepared for the world of work, while at the same time higher education steadfastly touts its success. And, in most all cases, higher education is right.

The monetary and non-monetary return to the individual and society for those with an associate degree and higher have long-term, positive impacts.  This is due in large part to the faculty who develop (and frequently redevelop) courses, craft curriculum, review the viability of their program in consultation with representatives from employers, and employ instructional practices that have been shown to increase student success.

Yet, in one major way higher education is failing students – and arguably business. They are failing them by accepting that a grade of “D” in core courses like English 101 or college algebra (“gateway courses” which serve as the foundation of further learning), is a success.

It may well be that institutions do not even know they are doing so because the impacts aren’t felt until long after the student completes the course.  Accepting that a grade of D in a foundational, core course as success is problematic for the following reasons.

First, grades of “D” typically do not transfer as a credit course.

Dr. Christopher M. MullinDr. Christopher M. Mullin

While Mississippi is the only state to prohibit a general education course grade of “D” to transfer and a review of regional accreditor websites did not present a policy position, it is general knowledge and has been reported on in the higher education space that a course with a grade of D rarely transfers into an upper division program.  This leads to students being required to retake courses they were led to believe they passed.

Second, earning a grade of “D” was found to be more common for black and Hispanic students than white students. 

In an analysis for this commentary, I reviewed publicly available data for a large system and found that a higher percentage of Black students consistently received a grade of D in gateway courses, followed by Hispanic students.  The consistency of outcomes illustrates an engrained trend: even as the number of students earning a grade of D decreased from 19,506 in the 2014-15 year to 17,678 in the 2017-18 year, the gaps remained.

Perpetuating a false sense of success not only delays a student’s progress to a credential and disproportionally impacts students of color; it also has an impact on affordability.

Third, retaking courses decreases affordability. 

Retaking courses a student thought they passed is demoralizing.  To add insult to injury, students who transfer into upper division courses will unknowingly need to retake and repay for these courses.

To get an estimate for the students in the systems above, let’s do the math.  With 17,678 students earning a grade of D in a gateway course during the 2017-18 year and each course costing the student a national average of $903 at a public 4-year institution to retake, then $16 million in tuition and fees will need to be repaid (assuming no increase in tuition and fees in future years) to have the foundational, core course in math or English apply to a program of study at some point in the future for this group of students.  Now imagine what the national figure would be.

It would be easy to read these statistics and interpret this as a call for faculty to reduce rigor.  That is not the case.  In fact, it is the opposite.  I share these findings as a call to action for institutions, through the accreditation process or other existing mechanisms, to conduct self-studies to understand if this trend is happening at their institution, and if so, to ask questions focused on institutional barriers to success rather than deficit-based questions about student “readiness.” For example, is the institution:

  • Setting clear goals and defining measurable outcomes;
  • Assessing students’ academic and non-academic strengths and weaknesses prior to or upon entry to inform course placement;
  • Limiting students’ time in developmental education for those who need it;
  • Mapping developmental education content to college coursework;
  • Propelling students into college coursework in an intended program of study;
  • Embedding academic and non-academic supports into developmental education instructional delivery and curriculum; and
  • Supporting faculty and staff to improve individual practice and institutional policy?

To be certain, this is not the end of the D.  In fairness, a grade of D in an elective course – such as golf – does not have the same impact as a D in a foundational, core general education course. I doubt employers care much about the D in Golf, for example. In fact, I can think of many bosses who would appreciate a new hire with a below average golf game.

Dr. Christopher M. Mullin is the director of Education Commission of the State’s Strong Start to Finish. 

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