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Wednesday, August 25, 2004

On the SEE doctrine or an 'A for effort'

I have thought a bit more about Benedict College in Columbia, SC, which is granting partial grades for student effort, in what is called the "Success Equals Effort" (SEE) policy. Recently linked here at Heavy Lifting, and mentioned a few other places (like SCSU Scholars and the Chronicle of Higher Education), the story is slowly spreading (Heavy Lifting was mentioned at Division of Labour and The Sports Economist).

My initial reaction is shock and awe, to use a phrase, that a college would pursue such a policy. Grading on the curve would seem to be more reasonable and "objective." But why be concerned about the grading policy at a small Historically Black College in Columbia, South Carolina? I would wager the fear on the part of most educators would likely be a "nose under the tent" concern - one school has done this, which one is next?

However, I think it might actually be good to have one or more schools that reward effort in this way, as long as the school or schools are clearly identified. Therefore, students would have a clear signal about the quality of their professors, professors have a clear signal about the quality of their students, and prospective employers have a clear signal about the quality of the graduates. Moreover, if a student comes to me and demands credit for effort, I can point them to Columbia, South Carolina.

Another way of viewing this is that Benedict College has come up with a unique way of differentiating itself in the monopolistically competitive market of higher education. One explanation for product differentiation, whether in cars, toothpaste, cereals, or colleges, is that it allows people to consume products more closely matching their preferences, thereby increasing utility (see Lancaster's article in the 1966 Journal of Political Economy [JSTOR link]).

Product differentiation definitely occurs in higher education. Colleges are not homogeneous: compare the majestic oaks of North Campus in Athens, GA to East Campus in Arlington, TX. Benedict College's policy is just another product-differentiation technique that allows some consumers of higher education to attend a college that more closely matches their preferences. Those who want their effort rewarded should go to Benedict College. Those who want to be rewarded based upon their performance should go to another school.

What impact the policy has on the educational attainment of those who attend Benedict College is, or course, an empirical question (and an interesting one at that). Perhaps Benedict College caters to a different audience and therefore can justify the policy, although it seems to fly in the face of several hundred years of Western education.

However, the philosophy underlying the policy seems dangerous especially because it is evident that 18 year olds often have a distorted view of what they prefer in the long run, which is what college advisors, professors, and administrators are supposed to help with. I am not sure that I agree with the vision of the president of Benedict College, and I am quite sure that I would disagree with the policy being implemented at my college. However, if the trustees of Benedict College agree with the president's policy, then by all means implement "SEE".

Some additional random thoughts:
  1. I always thought "An 'A' for effort" was just a saying, not to be taken literally, but it is one crazy world. Perhaps this is idea was hatched in a management department somewhere? :-)
  2. The professors "were not dismissed because they did not follow the policy...They were dismissed for insubordination. They were openly defiant and in some cases hostile." - uh, where's my dictionary.
  3. From my brother over at Le Chai - galerie du vin: Can we implement the "wait and SEE" policy?

Comments:
Good post, and I think you've fleshed out better my own thoughts on this. I like the tie to Lancaster.
 
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