The 60% “A” Grading Policy

By Bryce Bower, Staff Writer

The beginning of the fall semester this year brought with it a new grading policy at Thunderbird.  I am writing this article because I want to shed more light on the issue and break it down for those who may be interested in it. I have interviewed students, professors, and administration and received many different viewpoints. I have aimed to remain neutral and only offer the differing perspectives of those I have talked with. This policy, noted in the guidelines for student and faculty conduct as well as in every teacher’s syllabus, states that a professor is able to give out no more than 60% “A” grades to any given class. During Foundations this year we were informed of the change, and the news was greeted with mixed responses by the students.

Since school began, my colleagues and I at Thunderbird have discussed this matter among ourselves several times. Due to the perceived importance of GPA, any talk of policy that affects the grading process is often met with some kind of emotional response.  People have expressed fear, anger, pride, and surprisingly, indifference, in response to this new policy.

I asked Erin Lunsford (MAGAM ’19) what she thought of the grading policy.  She felt it was unjust. “I can see where they are coming from,” Lunsford said. “However, let’s say 70% of the class really understands a concept and does ‘A’ level work. How is that fair if some of them don’t receive the grade that they earned?”

To some people, the principle of inequality matters more than the actual grading system itself.  Other students I have talked to dislike the policy because they are afraid of the 3.0 grade average bottom line.  Dropping below a 3.0 average will place you on academic probation, but a maximum of 60% of students are allowed to get an A.  This combination creates a margin feels a lot smaller to students than it may seem to an outside observer.

I also talked to Isaac Miller (MAGAM ’19) and asked his opinion on the subject.  “Before I chose to apply to Thunderbird, I originally planned to go to law school,” he began. “I was prepared for a very competitive environment, and when I came to Thunderbird and heard about the 60% ‘A’ policy, I didn’t give it much thought.” He explained why he thought it was a good idea.  “Harder classes increase your ‘degree value’. This affects the reputation of your school and ultimately your future employment. I understand that this isn’t a traditional MBA school and great emphasis is put on networking, but at the same time I value challenge.” Miller suggested that instead of changing the grading system, classes should be harder.

After talking with students, I went and talked to Dr. Glenn Fong, professor of global studies and the director of the MAGAM program, to get some background information on this policy.  Dr. Fong suggested that it is a very lenient policy, compared to other business schools.  “When I was on faculty at Harvard, the policy there was about 20% of the class received a different letter grade (i.e. 20% A, 20% B, 20% C, etc.). They actually had a failure rate of about 15%.  But we aren’t trying to fail anyone here at Thunderbird.”  He gave me a lot of information about the creation, deliberation, and implementation of the grading scheme and encouraged me to talk with Dr. Joseph Carter about it.  Dr. Carter, professor of Supply Chain Management as well as the Associate Director General of Thunderbird, was the one to motion for this policy to be voted on by the faculty.

Dr. Carter explained that this policy was created in order to improve the content of the curriculum at Thunderbird. It was as much a policy for the students as it was for the teachers.  Limiting the number of “A”s is a way to encourage students to work hard as well as to see in which areas they are naturally talented: “The driving factor for this policy was to add value and depth to your education. We want you to graduate Thunderbird with your head spinning. Really feeling like you learned a lot.”

As Academic Dean, Dr. Carter takes his position very seriously. Earlier this year he compiled data on the GPA average of every class taught at Thunderbird in the last two years, and found that a surprising number—more than 10%— had an average grade above 4.0. That’s right, a few classes had an AVERAGE grade over an A. Until ASU came into the picture, getting above an ‘A’ at Thunderbird wasn’t even possible.  This was a serious problem, and instead of singling out graduate professors who gave high grades, Dr. Carter motioned for this “60% ‘A’ policy” to be adopted.  The professors and deans at Thunderbird nearly unanimously supported it; it could only be ratified by a democratic majority of faculty.

When I asked him what he thought of the students who felt cheated out of a possible “A” they earned, and the students who were concerned about the 3.0 grade line, he told me, “Earning an A in graduate school should not be easy. But if you are getting below a ‘B’ average—that means all 4 classes would have to be pretty low—then the problem isn’t with the grading scheme.” He explained to me that Thunderbird understands if people have medical or personal issues that affect them during a semester, and faculty will eagerly work with any individuals who drop below the bottom line. He asked me to encourage my fellows students not to sweat the grading policy: we are a smart group—or else we wouldn’t be here—and Thunderbird wants us to succeed in every way.

1 Comment

  1. Producers routinely certify that their products and services meet certain quality standards. Such standards require that a company monitors the quality of inputs and production processes and undertake quality inspections before shipment. Failure to maintain those standards would likely result in product returns, lost future sales, and ultimately reduce the company’s reputation and the value of its brand. And the costs of failing to maintain standards can be very high as evidenced by the stock price declines of companies such as Johnson & Johnson, Taco Bell, Arby’s, and recently, Chipotle.

    Grading standards fulfill a similar role at an educational institutional such as Thunderbird. If Thunderbird increased the number of students with As, not predicated on an increase in student quality (GMATs, GREs), recruiters would ultimately find a low correlation between course grades and student quality. In the short run, the institution and its students might experience a gain as recruiters mistakenly believed student quality was higher. But in the long run recruiters would discontinue recruiting at Thunderbird, causing a decline in Thunderbird’s brand value as high-quality students enrolled in other MBA programs. It would be a race to the bottom, as lower quality students “drove” out high-quality students (a classic Akerlof “lemons problem”). I don’t know whether “no more that 60% of grades be in the A range” is the right standard. But putting it in a historical context, when I came to Thunderbird I was told the accounting group’s GPA policy for all required accounting courses was 2.8 +/- 0.2. I believe other groups had similar policies. That policy continued until about 2008.

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