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?