GPA and socioeconomic exclusionPosted: April 10, 2014
Where I work, there is a lot of emphasis on undergraduate GPA in awarding funds for sticking around to do summer research projects. I agree in theory that having a high GPA is laudable…it demonstrates commitment, organization, and to some extent ability. Most scientists I know, however, have encountered the disconnect between GPA and performance in a lab environment. This shouldn’t surprise us…while there are certainly some overlapping skills (time management, organization), there are far more differences. Lab work is primarily manual work—you need “good hands”—especially for undergraduate students who can’t be expected to make a substantial intellectual contribution early on, and a whole host of other skills that you are unlikely to encounter in a classroom (but are more likely to find in some jobs/hobbies). I think I GPA means nothing in terms of what kind of scientist someone has the potential to be.
The reason this really bothers me is that I think the emphasis on (often small) differences in GPA as a criterion for awarding research and grad school opportunities perpetuates exclusion based on socioeconomic status. I’ve been in my faculty position for less than a year but I have seen it several times already. Undergraduates who have to keep 20+ hour a week jobs to be able to afford school, or those on full athletic scholarships (basically a full-time job), simply can’t put in the time it takes to pull a 3.5+ compared to kids who have no other commitments. And that really is the difference… a kid with a 3.2 who would easily have a 3.8 given the extra days a week to focus on coursework.
In a more nebulous sense, GPA demonstrates “preparedness.” Most A students have more or less been coached their whole lives on how to be a student. They are going from strength to strength. They aren’t struggling with suddenly going to college in a language that isn’t the one spoken at home. They often have a toolkit full of tangible and intangible support mechanisms from their parents
What do I say to two equally skilled undergrads who want to do summer research projects? One can stay on whether they get a summer award or not (something I don’t think should be allowed—if they are working in the lab and not getting credit, they should be getting paid). The other needs the award because otherwise he has to spend the summer working full time in his parents’ corner store (where he also works 20h/week during the year). Guess who is competitive for the GPA-based summer award? Guess who will, as a result, be more competitive for grad school? Guess who will be discouraged by school and by science?
I’d be interested in others’ experience with these issues… it is all new stuff for me to think about.