Redistribution of Grade Point Averages

Recently I discovered the following video on YouTube thanks to a Facebook posting by Arthur Brooks, President of the American Enterprise Institute:

For those of you who don’t have the time or privacy to play videos while you are reading a blog (the case for me about two thirds of the time), here’s a synopsis.  The video is apparently created by a conservative student group at the University of California – Merced.  They film as one of the students asks passers-by on campus to sign a petition, which would make it so that a portion of the grade point averages (GPA) of successful students could be taken to supplement the GPA of less successful students.  For example, someone with a 3.8 GPA – more than the student would “need” in order to graduate – could be taken away (lowering the GPA to say 3.0) and these points given to raise the GPA of a student who is struggling to pass.  One would-be petition signer even expresses some interest until she is told, in response to her question, that no, this would not be a voluntary program, it would be instituted on all excessive GPA regardless of the desires of the holder of the excessive GPA.

The conservative students, obviously, are making a political point about taxation and the political language of “paying their fair share”, and after only a few moments of keeping up the charade, they engage the passers-by in a dialogue about the analogy.  The filmed students generally do rise to the challenge, mounting a defense as to why GPA and money are not truly analogous.  The conservatives even take their petition to a table set up by a College Democrat organization.

As I understand it, the premise here is not original with the students; Arthur Brooks briefly comments that he has used this example as well in order to test students’ intuitions.  I can’t say for certain, but I also have this feeling that Thomas Sowell has written about this example in one of his books or columns.  I expected that watching the video, for me, would provide visceral satisfaction only – I’m not immune to the enjoyment of a “gotcha!” directed at one’s rhetorical opposition.  But to my surprise, watching the video led not only to the main insight, but indeed, a series of additional insights that might help toward my overall project of understanding my fellow professors.

Insight #1: The students  (speaking for a great many people of all ages) do not view money and income as reflective of performance

The predictable gotcha moment, which recurs again and again in the brief video, is that the student objection will be this: “But GPA isn’t like money and taxes.  GPA is an indication of performance.”  Then all that’s left to do is connect the following dots: 1) Then you agree that it would be immoral for an outside force to confiscate the fruits of someone’s hard work and give it to someone else who has not earned it, and 2) And by the way, money and GPA are alike – they are both indicators of performance.

It’s a bit of a Pyrrhic victory, however, because there’s such a resistance to the acceptance of the second step in connecting the dots.  And there’s good reason.  We all know people who work their tails off but who are woefully underpaid.  And even more damning to the notion is the other image – the image of the person who is so wealthy from inheritance that he or she doesn’t have to work at all.

In Psychology, there is a well-studied phenomenon called the availability bias.  (Notably, work on the availability bias in part led to a 2002 Nobel Prize – in Economics – for Daniel Kahneman, one of the major researchers on this and other cognitive biases that made a mockery of the economist’s fiction of the rational agent.)  The availability bias explains that our estimation of the frequency of an event or property is biased by the availability of our memories to relevant examples.  And so, because the image of the yacht-sailing, country club, old money gadfly leaps so readily to mind (perhaps because this is the trope so frequently employed on TV and in movies), we tend to overestimate the number of wealthy people who inherited – didn’t earn – their fortunes.  We may also think of the very few enormous salaries we have heard about made by some CEOs.  Likewise, because the hard working, dedicated, underpaid [social worker, cop, teacher, firefighter, migrant worker] professional is another familiar trope, and also because we are likely more conscious of our acquaintance’s financial status when they are struggling or are being exploited than when they are being appropriately compensated, we also tend to overestimate the frequency of people who aren’t getting their due.

A corollary to the availability bias, then, is that we tend to underestimate the frequency of events and properties that do not leap readily to mind – in other words, the boring cases.  The bulk of American workers are here.  Even the ones in this category who are very rich – perhaps making the $350,000 or so necessary to be in the lately-despised “top 1%” – give proof to the generality that income is an indication of performance.  People in that category are likely to be people with special skills – for example, doctors and lawyers – whose income is a direct reflection of the number of years they spent studying and the number of billable hours they end up working.  Or the person might be a small business owner working long hours and doing the work of many people, like the shopkeeper who handles customer service, advertising, accounting, sweeping up, and cleaning the bathrooms.  These are the people who make the big bucks – the big bucks are a reflection of hours – hours per week, and hours spent preparing in special schools or in building a new business.

And, ironically, that yacht-sailing, country club, old money gadfly who is the image so many people reflexively have when they think of the “top 1%” is completely irrelevant, at least if that person is so rich he doesn’t have to work.  Our tax code (perhaps foolishly) is based on income.  It is income that indicates performance, not money per se.  (That we should tax money spent rather than money earned may be worthy of a future post.)

So we’ve admitted that income doesn’t perfectly reflect performance, but perhaps we’ve shown that it does so more faithfully than most people imagine based on their intuitions.  But after all, can’t we make the same case for GPA?  I can tell you as a professor that most molecular biology and physics majors walk around believing that their 4.0 is particularly laudable because they earned it taking molecular biology and physics classes.  Or a student might be miffed that her friend got an A in Gen Chem and she only got a B, but of course she had to take it from Dr. X instead of Dr. Q.  GPA is an indication of performance, true enough, but it isn’t a perfect indicator either.  Income and GPA seem to make a tighter analogy than expected.

Insight #2: When the subject matter is closer to home (GPA), the students don’t see victimization as an intuitive excuse

Even before watching the video, I was expecting that Insight #1 would be confirmed.  But this second insight was the one that surprised me.  At about 3:50 in the video, a student is gamely defending the notion that income and GPA are not the same, because there isn’t a level playing field with income.  The conservative cleverly pounces, now raising the possibility that GPA isn’t a level playing field either.  And what is really clever about the pounce is that he asserts that a person with high a GPA may only have that high GPA because of privilege.

Some students, he implies, may be wealthy and can therefore devote all of their time to their coursework.  Other students may have to work a job in addition to going to school, so naturally, that student’s GPA is going to suffer.  Not because that person isn’t as smart or as hard working, but merely because that person isn’t as privileged.  It is easy to imagine other “through no fault of their own” explanations to explain why a low GPA is not reflective of actual ability and drive.  Perhaps the person is dyslexic.  Perhaps the person had a nasty break up with a significant other during a key semester.  Perhaps the person’s parents are going through a nasty divorce.  Why, indeed, should these people be punished with a low GPA when there are so many extra grade points out there among the privileged students who have more than they need?

The reaction is rather interesting.  The intuition is – okay, sure, that may be true in some cases, but my own GPA is not dependent on privilege – I worked hard for it.  Plus, I’m sure a lot of low GPA cases are people who don’t put in the effort, who are in college just to party, or who just don’t have the right stuff.  I (the Republican Atheist Professor) would probably agree with these possibilities.  But if I were a leftist, and we actually were talking about income, I’d say the student was a typical selfish conservative who can’t see how much their success is dependent on the deck being stacked in their favor and who would rather blame the victim than help out a fellow human being.

Insight #3: The students and the wisdom of C.D. Broad

Serendipitously, I watched this video and not long after was reminded of the famous C.D. Broad quote:

Not to be radical when one is young argues hardness of heart; to remain so when one is old suggests softness of head.

My life has followed Broad’s outline, if young means younger than 20 and old means 21 and older.  When I first arrived at college I would have strenuously objected to the GPA-income analogy, just like the students in this video.  Today I don’t object at all.  It is only an analogy, and so it can certainly be quibbled with, but the point of an analogy is to strip away the quibbles so that one can focus on deeper structure (and gain insight).

I would have objected for the reasons these students objected.  I worked very hard in college and, like probably all of my professorial colleagues, my academic success was very much part of my self-concept.  Like the students in the video, I would naturally have viewed the GPA (correctly) as a reflection of my skills, drive, and performance.  I saw the connection between my level of work and the grades I received.  I received few poor grades in high school and college, but the ones I got were directly related to a lower level of interest, drive, and performance.

The students are all young (young in the meaning of Broad’s witticism).  At that age, they are acutely aware of the relationship between performance and GPA, but most of them have no sense of the relationship between performance and income.  None of us do when we are kids, and increasingly, few college students do even as young adults.  Their education is funded by their parents or a scholarship or a loan they imagine will be easy to pay off once they get a real job.

But they will soon be old (in Broad’s sense again).  Part of my own conversion may very well be in “graduating” from understanding the effect of my performance on grades to understanding the effect of my performance on income.  In other words, it is perfectly possible to be a radical (i.e., leftist) at 18 and not a radical (i.e., conservative) at 30 without changing your personality or values.  All you have to do is start to see the strength of the GPA-income analogy.

Insight #4: Why are so many professors soft in the head?

But of course, not everybody follows Broad’s outline, and one group that is highly unlikely to do so is college professors.  There are other groups as well – journalists and teachers come to mind.

So what makes my fellow professors different?  This was a question tackled by Thomas Sowell in his brilliant book Intellectuals and Society.  He made the point that while the success of engineers, doctors, and businesspeople (for example) were dependent on tangible results (bridges holding up, patients being saved, customers being satisfied), the success of intellectuals is largely dependent on approval of colleagues.  Intellectuals deal with ideas, and those ideas are rarely tested.  Or the results of the tests are irrelevant.  (For example, Marxism and Freudian analysis can be popular in literature departments regardless of the complete failure of the former to generate healthy societies and the latter to explain human behavior.)  What governs an intellectual’s success (and therefore his or her remuneration) depends not on performance (at least performance that can be measured by some objective criterion).  Professors don’t have the opportunity, therefore, to build that intuition of the solidity of the GPA-income analogy.

Teachers, to take an example from another group, have strongly resisted linking income to tangible measures of performance.  Or I should say some teachers, and particularly leaders of teachers’ unions.  This is not a critique, merely a description.  I don’t necessarily think teachers are wrong about this.  While I do think it should be easier to fire bad teachers than it currently is, I do agree that it is not particularly easy to quantify teacher performance.  Again, my point is not to criticize the teaching profession for this – merely to point out that it is a profession in which there is not opportunity to build that intuition about the GPA-income analogy.  This may end up being a generalization one can make about unionized professions, where there is often a purposeful  separation of performance and income as a matter of union policy.

So I congratulate the U.C. – Merced conservative group that staged the video.  I do not know if any of the students they debated will alter their intuitions.  But I do know at least one Republican Atheist Professor for whom the video was more than just a viscerally satisfying gotcha moment – it served as the catalyst towards an insight or two.

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