Most undergrads who have applied to an organization outside of Brown — virtually everyone — have had to take the annoying step of calculating their GPA. In the spirit of its unique educational philosophy, Brown refuses to calculate GPA; but other organizations, obviously, do not share this philosophy. Whether applying to study-abroad, to law school or to a plethora of internships, one can usually count on the organization to request a GPA from its applicants. Brown’s denial of GPA is ideological but impractical, romantic but inefficient. For the sake of efficiency and accuracy, Brown ought to include GPA in undergraduate transcripts.
Of the various idiosyncrasies of the Open Curriculum, the denial of GPA is unique in that it has an exclusively ideological purpose. The lack of requirements outside a concentration, the grading without plusses and minuses and the option for S/NC all have real effects on an undergrad’s education. They allow undergrads to take whatever courses they wish, with reduced pressure to succeed and with more room to experiment. The denial of GPA, like the rest of these, is supposed to symbolize Brown’s commitment to its distinctive liberal education. But in practice it has no effect on the education, for the simple reason that undergrads still worry just as much about their GPA as they otherwise would, knowing that the outside world will probably evaluate them by such a metric.
Anecdotally, many undergrads at Brown are as conscious of their GPA as undergrads elsewhere. They may be more willing to take academic risks, but they still check their grades anxiously. They are excited to explore a new class or two, but they still feel the pain when a new class ends ups desecrating an otherwise pristine transcript. For they know that GPA will, indeed, matter for them upon graduation, even if it does not matter now. Whether or not Brown calculates GPA, many undergrads themselves will still fret over them. Brown therefore seems to be deluding itself by denying the weight that undergrads actually give to GPA.
CareerLAB, too, understands the practical necessity of GPA. It gives the following instructions to those using Handshake, a career placement tool: “Some employers in Handshake (about 10 percent) have a strict cutoff when it comes to GPA. If you don’t meet that threshold, you are likely not to be chosen for an interview. For that reason, we recommend all students include their GPA (self-calculated) in their profile. The vast majority of employers look at a combination of factors and do not weigh GPA so heavily.” Also, 13 of the 17 sample resumes on CareerLAB’s website contain a GPA. Since more often than not undergrads will eventually need to calculate their GPA anyway, why can’t Brown just do so for them?
The main problem with Brown’s denial of GPA, if I am to be honest, is the nuisance that it imposes on undergrads, who must go through the trouble themselves of calculating their GPA. But beyond the mere nuisance, GPA calculated by students also lends itself to unintentional or even deliberate errors. Calculating together the myriad classes, one could err in properly weighting a course or could deliberately write a higher number. Without an official GPA on the transcript, an employer who does not want to spend the time calculating a GPA would simply believe the number written on the top of the resume. An official verification would prevent the possibility of such errors.
Brown needs to accept the reality of the GPA. To pretend that it does not exist does not make them vanish. By putting aside its lofty principles, in this case, for more practical concerns, Brown could do its undergrads a small but convenient favor.
James Flynn ’20 can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send responses to this opinion to email@example.com and op-eds to firstname.lastname@example.org.