GPA and socioeconomic exclusion

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.

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6 Comments on “GPA and socioeconomic exclusion”

  1. Michael H says:

    I worked primarily with female URM students. Many had GPA between 3.0 and 3.5. My preference was to base taking them as a student based on the interview & tendency to hard work rather than GPA or academic concerns.

    By and large, my greatest flakes as students have been those with a 4.0 on the fast track to med school. Their grades reflected memorization skills, not time management or hard work. The students working 20 hrs AND school AND working with me almost always provided data and got THEM papers.

  2. rxnm says:

    Yeah… this is the frustrating thing… we don’t get to pick the students… it is a semi-automatic process. I think the intention is good: by making it a objective(ish) number score, some kinds of bias are removed. I just think it’s a mistake to solve internal, institutional bias problems by reverting to the external biases of GPA.

  3. theLaplaceDemon says:

    My lab has run into this with the high school interns we get. It’s a sort of nebulous process where a program run in partnership with the high school offers us some carefully vetted applicants, we interview a couple, pick one, and they spent a few afternoons a week in our lab instead of in class.

    Of the three that we’ve had since I got here, only one was any good. The second one didn’t have the hands or organizational ability to give consistent, clean data for even very simple experiments after two semesters here – and didn’t seem all that interested in the theory behind everything, either. The third was technically OK but very flaky and unreliable, also not very interested in the intellectual content of the projects.

    All three of these kids were total academic all-stars, 4.0, APs, never saw a bad grade in their lives. I can’t say for sure that we’d be better off if the program didn’t have such a stringent GPA cutoff, since I don’t have any low(er) GPA students to compare to our 4.0 kids, but I have a hunch that if we prioritized “really interested in our particular area of science” over phenomenal academic achievement we might be better off.

  4. Possibly relevant, in case you missed it: Orion Wiener of UCSF on “How should we be selecting our graduate students?” tl;dr re: this article is “Not GPA.” http://www.molbiolcell.org/content/25/4/429.abstract

  5. […] the comments on my GPA post, David points out some data supporting the non-predictive nature of GPA with regard to grad school performance. I […]

  6. Dr. Pablito says:

    When I interviewed students for positions as research assistants, or new grad students, or interns, or whatever, my favorite interview question was “Tell me about your hobbies — what do you like to do outside of course work?” I was looking for answers including car maintenance, sculpting, amateur electronics, model building, computer building and programming, collecting things, some type of skilled quasi-sport suggesting manual dexterity and dedication to craft. I worried a lot that this line of questioning was kind of sexist, but I did manage to find outstanding young women this way, too. I got burned a few times with flakey students with great GPA’s and transcripts who were worthless in the lab before I hit on this tactic.


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