Bryan Caplan  

The Economics and Philosophy of Pity Grades

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More students than I care to remember have argued with me about their grades. But there is one argument that I always dismiss out of hand: "You should raise my grade because I NEED a higher grade!" I don't do pity grading.

You could argue against pity grading on reputational grounds. If employers, other schools, and parents knew that pity grading went on, it would make all grades less informative. Does this applicant have an A because he was an A student, or had a soft-hearted teacher? Did my son maintain the B average I demand through hard work, or by telling the teacher "My dad will kick me out of the house unless you give me an A-"?

I could make this argument, but it would be dishonest. The real reason I refuse to pity grade is not that it will degrade the informational value of grades. If raising a student's grade would double his lifetime income, and I knew with absolute certainty that no one would ever find out, I still wouldn't do it.

So why not bend the rules? My objection to doing so is that students should get the grade they earned. And this has nothing to do with how much higher grades would benefit them. Students who demonstrate their knowledge of the material deserve high grades, and students who demonstrate their lack of knowledge deserve low grades, and that's all there is to it. In short, morally correct grading is about merit, not need.

What if some students had more opportunities than others? It makes no difference. A student who does not know labor economics fails my class, even if the reason he does not know it is because he had to work two jobs to support his grandma. Should we take Olympic gold medals away from the children of parents who supported their dream from the cradle on? I think not.

Maybe I deeply misread them, but I suspect that even most left-wing professors grade as meritocratically as I do. They may give extra help to students who come to office hours, but if a student spends 2 hours in your office every week and still fails the exam, you can't let him slide.

To me, this reveals a basic inconsistency in egalitarian philosophy. If you assign grades based on merit, and merit depends on performance unadjusted for opportunity, then why shouldn't the same principle hold for income and wealth? Just because you feel sorry for someone, why does that entitle them to a share of the riches of the more successful? And if you do not adjust for unequal opportunities when you grade, why should you adjust for unequal opportunities when you contemplate redistribution?

You could say that money affects people's lives more than grades, but I beg to differ. The empirical evidence cuts the other way. Job satisfaction - which probably depends heavily on having the education and grades to open up the doors you want to walk through - matters a lot more for happiness than dollars of income. So if you really wanted to even out the ultimate inequality of life, you'd redistribute grades before money.

Yes, all this sounds harsh. I've never claimed to be a Bleeding-Heart Libertarian. What I will admit is that I often admire the student who comes in second despite his disadvantages more than the student who comes in first. But I see no inconsistency. Prizes are the wages of merit; admiration is the wage of virtue.

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COMMENTS (20 to date)
Scott Scheule writes:

It does sound that way, but it's the harshness that brings so many of us back to the site again and again.

spencer writes:

You say prizes are the wages of merit. that may be true of many prizes but it is not true about income. Is it merit that someone inherits sufficient wealth that they never have to work?
It may be luck, a good thing for the economy, or other things but it is not merit.

spiritual credit held to be earned by performance of righteous acts and to ensure future benefits

According to the dictionary merit is something earned. Yes, give your students the grade they have earned. But do not make the claim that all income deserves the same merit.

Trent McBride writes:

Well, SPencer, do not make the implied claim that no income is earned, because it is not true either. The analogy is not 100% perfect, but it's close enought, I think. And the neither ability to earn high income nor good grades is earned.

Mike writes:


I understand where you are coming from, but doesn't your argument open a Pandora's Box? Not all incomes are created equal you say - so, you are saying that my college roommate, a trust fund baby, is somehow less entitled to his income than I am to mine, since I was one of 6 kids whose father was an accountant in working class New York City. I have since graduated from college and received a PhD, but have a job I am not too thrilled about.

Now, I personally have no problem with this situation - his family earned that income at some point, and they made a conscious decision to have children, so they are entitled to that bounty. I am entitled to my $47,000 salary, just as much as my friend is entitled to the income off of his $1.4 million trust. If I decide to live in a tent for the next 30 years, save $30,000 of my income for each of those years, are you telling me that my child is not entitled to the $900,000 (plus interest) that I want to leave for him? You might say, yes he is, because I worked at a sucky job for 30 years and sacrificed in order for him to have those riches. But, once you make that concession, it's a slippery slope deciding who is to judge how hard anyone works during their lifetimes, which methods of earning income are more "worthy", how large a sacrifice each of us is making for our children, what is income that is "earned" or who generally is "entitled" to what income.

If you are not willing to make that concession, the implications for savings and investment seem to be undesirable. Maybe some are not concerned about that, ascribing to JM Keynes' feelings about the long run.

Nonetheless, Brian's point is an excellent one, but I'll throw out a question for how one "ought" to handle an example from one of my classes from last year. A student of mine had a solid B+ coming into my final. He came to every class, did every assignment, particated in discussions, came to office hours, and did everything a professor could ask of a student. He walked into the final looking like hell. I said nothing, and when I graded it he scored a D on the final. This student never complained, but a fellow classmate and another teacher told me that this student had been kept up all evening long prior to the exam caring for a sick roommate - and never had the chance to do the last minute studying that he normally did. Does this student merit another chance? Grading leniency? He received neither from me, but I did place a letter in his academic file making mention of his good performance and the supposed incident before the final. Should I have handled this differently?

Mike writes:

Oops, sorry for mangling your name Bryan.

Danno writes:

Maybe this is just me as a disgruntled student, but I've been thinking for a long time now that the grades my teachers hand out to me are pretty worthless.

I've done pretty good too, with mostly A's and a few B's now and then, but it just never seems like the grade motivates me to do more. In fact, I usually feel like settling for less when I know I'll still get a good grade.

More than that, and maybe this is just because I'm in the computer science field, but I'm pretty sure that the grades I get aren't really going to do Jack or Shit for me when I'm looking for a job. I'm working on putting a portfolio of work together and I think that's probabally going to be more important in the long run.

So, I guess my point is that if other students feel the same way about grades that I do, then I can understand why they'd wheedle for grades.

Nick writes:

I think this blog is terrific. That said, I'd encourage the ever enthusiastic authors to manage their contempt a little better. Specifically, when Bryan stated "Maybe I deeply misread them, but I suspect that even most left-wing professors grade as meritocratically as I do." I think he was damning with faint praise. All, or nearly all of my professors in the nearly 60 courses that I've taken have graded meritocratically as far as I can tell, and a healthy (or unhealthy) fraction were left-wing, sure. But that is besides the point. Grading is an academic tradition. However meaningful grades are, and in some cases they aren't very meaningful (e.g. in the case where a professor gives everyone in the class an A -- this actually takes place), economists a) shouldn't be holding up grades as an example of how to distribute goods in a labor market and b) shouldn't, when discussing grades, make any assumptions at all about how other people grade.

To support argument a), let's argue that income is an exchange of money for labor under the terms of a contract. Then we need not and should not start with a very different domain, e.g. the assesment of a scholastic or gymnastic performance by an expert scholar or athlete as a model, because, quite simply, X's performance in a class is undertaken in attempt to master some area of learning and Y's performance on the parallel bars is undertaken to perfect his/her strength, grace and agility--these are simply not "mere attempts" to get future income, even if they are correlated. Bryan has young children, so he knows that little ones are not thinking about money when they read a story, even if the act of reading is a necessary activity if one wants to go most of the conventional routes toward earning a living later on.

To support argument b), I think it is fair to say that each individual grader has to make a choice regarding how tough to make his assignments, or tests, and then whether or not to use an absolute (non-curved) or relative (curved) grading scale. Empirically, one can not look at a set of grades for one class for one term, and know whether the professor gave easy or difficult tests and whether or not he used a curve or not in calculating final grades. Heck, I have two A's in Bryan's classes from a while ago, and I don't even know (objectively) whether his tests were relatively difficult or relatively easy! But in any case, we can trust that he is meritocratic.

Ian Lewis writes:
Prizes are the wages of merit; admiration is the wage of virtue.
Exactly where does learning enter into this equation.

It has been my experience that when the student truly cared about learning some subject (i.e a new musical instrument, a new programming language, some new software package, etc.) that grades were the least important thing.

This is also why musical instructors and professional programming courses rarely, if ever, deal with grades and framed pieces of paper (uh, I mean diplomas). They tend to concentrate on learning. If the student is doing well in one area and poorly in another, they shift the focus, the teacher does not give an "F".

This has just been my observation.

Bill writes:

I had an English professor that bumped-up grades for low-performing students that majored in journalism or English. What an ass! I knew another English professor that let students grade themselves. I kid you not!

John Brothers writes:

As a businessman, I would care slightly more about the value of the second number (effort) than I would about the first. Because once in business, both of those numbers are valuable for determining where this new employee would be best

Which suggests the possibility that both measures (merit and virtue) are interesting signals. We need a two-dimensional grading system!

Tony writes:

I don’t get how you can say this and be against the estate tax. You can be a moral-libertarian that says people get stuff because they earned it, or a consequentialist-libertarian that says they get stuff because it makes the world work better. But there are times when those come into conflict.

If we’re going to have taxes at all, clearly the estate tax is the least anti-merit out there. But in that case, the conservative-economist says we need to be hard-headed realists who encourage investment in order to make the world a better place. Silly liberals, driven by moral intuitions instead of economic utilitarianism.

But when it comes to general income tax or grades or whatever, those silly liberals don’t share the moral intuition conservative economists have with “deserving” something. They’re willing to be amoral for such fatuous causes as “making people better off”.

In neither case it is a consistent moral framework from a first principle. In both cases it’s an excuse for disdain at those less well off and a lack of desire to help them.

dearieme writes:

"So if you really wanted to even out the ultimate inequality of life, you'd redistribute grades before money." And health and beauty before those?

Serious question: why on earth do you give grades to work that is not anonymous? Where I work, we abolished students' names from their examination "scripts" (answer books) years ago, and a thoroughly healthy reform it has proved. Any substantial "continuously assessed" work that has not been anonymised is double-marked. I'm less sure of the merits of that: it does consume effort and I don't know whether the return on it justifies it.

Paul N writes:

Bryan, do you grade on a predetermined curve, i.e. you know how many A's you'll give out before the course starts?

I once got screwed because my hardass prof had a strict curve, i.e. 6 A's out of ~120 students for my thermodynamics course (this was a state school...where there's no grade inflation yet in chemical engineering). When I checked my grade for the course online, at first it was an A, then when I got the written report card, it was a B! It turned out that a student had his/her final exam re-graded, and the improved score moved him/her up to 6th place, and I moved down to 7th, so he/she got his/her grade changed from a B to an A, and my grade was swapped the other way!

Robert Schwartz writes:

During my short adverture teaching law school (adjunct at nyu for 2 years about 25 years ago) I once got a phone call from a student who begged me to raise his grade. He told me he wanted to get a graduate degreee in law and my grade would prevent him from getting into a graduate program.

I refused to do it. I told him that I might be doing him a favor by pushing him into a career for which he was better fitted. He was not happy, but that is the way it was.

Since then, I have learned the following story, which seems to me to encapsulate the wisdom of the position I took.

A little bird was sitting in a tree when an ice storm came along, knocked it to the ground and covered it with a layer of ice. The bird was lying on the ground freezing to death when a horse came along and dumped a huge load of steaming hot manure on it. The manure's warmth melted the ice and caused the bird to revive. Feeling refreshed, the bird began to chirp. A barnyard cat heard the singing bird, pounced on it, and ate it.

The moral of the story is:

not everybody who dumps on you is your enemy,

not everybody who gets you out of manure is your friend, and

if you're sitting in a manure pile, don't sing.

Bob Dobalina writes:

Let's figure out what grades are supposed to measure.

I loathe college grading. If grades are supposed to measure a student's grasp of the material, I don't know why (in sciences, especially) professors don't just give students the grade they earned on a cumulative final.

Nothing's worse than scoring a 98 on a final, and getting a C in the class because attendance and homework weren't satisfactory-- especially when the other kids kissed ass, got a D on the final, but were buoyed by being such nice kids (prompt homework, good attendance) into getting a B.

nn writes:

Within academia (which is fairly lefwing) the humanities are substantially more left-wing than the technical subjects such as engineering or economics (cf. Dan Klein's work, also Rothman and Lichter).

At any given university, grade inflation (which tends to equalize student performance since giving out nearly all A's and B's reduces grade inequality) is more common in the hums than the techs. Moreover, grade inflation has taken off since the 60s when the counter culture took hold in some regions of the academy.

Now, what the actual causal mechanisms are is quite unclear, but the evidence seems to be that some lefties are consitently -- if misguidedly -- egalitarian.

Ronny Max writes:

My grading philosphy is: A for those who excel, B for those who do all the required work, C for those who show signs of laziness, and D for those who don't even try.

Love this blog.

Tremont writes:

... you make the quite critical error in assuming that grades only reflect the performance of the "Student" !

It should be obvious that the 'student' is not the only significant component in a given educational/classroom 'system'. Certainly, the professor/teacher is a critical component of that 'system' ... or why have teachers at all (??)

Would not low-quality or untrained'teachers' lower the "measured" performance (i.e., 'grade') of typical students ? And, conversely -- high-quality teachers raise that measured performance ??

Why should professional 'teachers' be automatically exempted from any responsibility for their students graded performance ?

As a metaphor, should the quality of a piano-teacher be assessed on how well he plays the piano -- or how well his students play the piano ?

Formal education is a 'system' -- not a single-entity 'student'.

Duane Gran writes:

It is my observation that students often refer to earning good grades and being given bad grades. When students take ownership of their grades this issue will be a mute point. (I say this as a former C+ student)

Ben Crost writes:

You overlook the fundamental differences between grades and income, which is that grades are not currency but (ideally) information about a persons endowment with human capital (i.e. skills, intelligence, motivation). This means first of all that they are not transferable in a transaction. A good student couldn’t sell his grades to a worse one in exchange for other goods. Second, even if the grades were transferable, this wouldn’t mean that the accompanying human capital would be transferred as well. The worse student wouldn’t suddenly become smarter if he had higher grades

So what is the function of grades in the economy? We all know that the labour market is characterized by imperfect and asymmetric information, meaning that the seller of labour (the prospective employee) usually knows more about his value (abilities, motivation etc.) than the buyer (employer). There is an extensive literature on the effects of asymmetric information. In the worst case it can lead to the complete breakdown of markets, but usually it just imposes additional transaction costs since buyer and seller have to find ways of gathering or conveying reliable information about the good. So if you give pity grades to your students you decrease the informational value of university grades forcing employers to look for other ways to gather information about prospective employees. By the way, you can see that this is already happening if you look at the huge amount of money firms are spending on testing applicants. Interestingly universities don’t even seem to trust each other to reliably grade students otherwise they wouldn’t require third-party tests like the GRE.

So basically your conclusion that giving everybody the same grade (which is to stop grading altogether) redistributes income or opportunities is wrong. All it does is impose additional costs on agents in the labour market. And everybody who has ever taken the GRE knows that these costs can be very high both in terms of money and of time wasted studying for an utterly pointless test.

Funny enough, in the standard neo-classical world of perfect information, grades are superfluous since everybody knows everybody else’s endowments with human capital anyway. So if you believe grades are important you must obviously be convinced that there is something wrong with that model.

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