Wednesday, May 07, 2014


How Long Are Bad Grades Good For?

How long are bad grades good for?

I’ve never actually seen a serious, empirical study of this, but I’m hoping it’s out there and some among my wise and worldly readers can point me in the right direction.

Like many colleges, mine has a “fresh start” policy for students who are coming back after many years and want to erase a checkered academic past.  The idea is that someone who, say, partied his way through a terrible semester ten years ago, and then spent a decade getting kicked around by the job market before deciding to return, is probably meaningfully different now.  Continuing to hold that early foray against him doesn’t really make sense at this point.  

That matters for a few reasons.  Academic probation is one; if you average a youthful 0.2 with a mature 3.0, you’re still below 2.0 and therefore automatically on probation.  But if you had just shown up out of the blue and achieved that same 3.0, you’d be fine.  What a decade-old semester reflects about current ability or performance is obscure at best.

Admission to selective programs is another.  For our Nursing program, for example, students have to apply after getting through a bunch of gen ed and prerequisite classes (like Biology).  They compete for scarce seats -- a scarcity driven largely by the availability of clinical sites and instructors -- partly on the basis of GPA.  A student who is forever weighed down by a bad experience dating from the 1990’s will never make it in.  Considering that adult students with a sense of purpose often do quite well in Nursing, excluding them like that wouldn’t make sense.

And then there’s geography.  GPA’s don’t transfer; only credits do.  Therefore, a student who had a rough semester at East Side CC and returns twenty years later carries the old GPA, but that student’s twin brother who had the same rough semester at ESCC twenty years ago enrolls now at West Side CC and starts fresh.  What educational or social purpose is served by punishing a failure to move, I’d be hard pressed to say.

Financial aid is a much stickier issue.  I’ll defer to specialists on this, but my impression is that the Feds don’t have any sort of “fresh start” provision.  Even if we grant what amounts to an academic do-over, the Feds won’t.  That matters for things like “satisfactory academic progress” and lifetime Pell limits.   

I’m not thrilled about the Feds, but we control only what we control.

Conceptually, I’m comfortable with the idea of allowing a forty-year-old returning student to write off a bad semester that dates back to age eighteen.  But in the world of applied policy, the easy example of a twenty-two year gap will lead quickly to applications from people with a two year gap, asking for the same thing.  Beyond personal intuition, I don’t know what the temporal threshold should be.

Has anyone out there seen (or done) research on the amount of time after which earlier college performance is no longer meaningfully predictive?  Is there an empirical answer to how long bad grades are good for?

My university discarded grades older than 7 years, even for active students who just take forever to graduate.
I hope you know that bad grades go down on your PERMANENT RECORD!
Med schools also use a 7 year rule, so that grades earned more than seven years ago aren't counted in the pre-med GPA (at least if you retake the courses). That's a little different than your question, since that isn't within a single institution, but could certainly be used as a justification -- if the med schools have a forgiveness policy, why can't we?
I would say that if you have to retake the class to use it for part of your major, you shouldn't have it count against you in your GPA. Usually that means 7 years.

Once again, you must have been looking over my shoulder during pre-semester advising. Some things are universal. My instance was a student who had failed a bunch of developmental classes !! about 6 years ago and even maxed out the number of attempts at one of them.

Older and wiser, yes, but also has not become more competent at reading in the interim. (Same placement level on a different test!) I wouldn't want to see money wasted on multiple additional attempts, but ONE last shot? Worth a look. I need to find out what the counselors did in that case.

A automatic 7-year window would allow more attempts in that case, but what this student really needs is a contract with a plan.
In the south, we use 3 years.
Some schools also have a blanket policy that if you retake a course, your most recent grade is the only one that counts. Or that you at least average the two grades for GPA purposes. Whether this policy advantages slower rich kids who can afford to take extra semesters to get their pre-med grades higher is another question, but in general it made sense to me. Absent the ability to test greater than semester-long retention, what matters isn't how well you did at the beginning but what you eventually learned.

Of course, you're stuck with the question of whether GOOD grades should also expire.
Texas has "Academic Fresh Start" after 10 years of no activity. The student has to declare it, so it's not automatic. Students need to carefully consider it since all coursework is figuratively "wiped clean" (ignored- it is, after all, still a PERMANTENT RECORD) including any earned credits.

I have no answer at all for this. Every policy or guideline I have seen, heard of, or can think of to handle this situation falls far short of being fair. With the exception of the passage of 10 years or more. But it does speak to the folly of pushing every kid into college because, let's face it, the ones who could do well after the passage of some time (as opposed to the ones who don't do well even after the passage of time) are the ones who did not really want to be facing more classroom learning after 12 years of same at the age of 18 or 20.
I have never seen a study (and I looked about 5 or 6 years ago when I was trying to persuade my institution to adopt an "academic bankruptcy" policy). Something may have happened in the intervening years...

At my former institution, whatever was on your (institutional) transcript was forever. Also, new applicants have to sign an application form that attests that they have provided all post-secondary transcripts.

Also, I once had a student who took 22 years to complete a degree; some of the credits were for a program that no longer existed. Those were treated as unallocated electives--which meant they were essentially worthless...It took 150 hours of credit to get to the 120 required for graduation...
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