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Hot on Campus | October 3, 2012

The power of the plus

Education

Colleges are looking to expand their grading system to give 'special' students added recognition

©iStockPhoto/Vonkara1

"Let's get this straight from the start: an A isn't 'special,'" Julia Carpenter wrote in a blog post for her college newspaper. "An A+ is 'special.'"

Carpenter and her fellow students at the University of Georgia (UGA) are pulling for the right to have a little, black plus sign appear next to the highest letter grade on their transcripts.

In the face of an increasingly competitive post-graduate world, an A+ means more to students than a pat on the back. A parade of colleges have adopted the plus/minus grading system in hopes of giving their students that extra something on transcripts. But inconsistencies among college grading systems make it hard to say just how much the plus is worth.

"'Special' is what university students need as they apply for major scholarships, internships and spots in prestigious post-graduate programs," Carpenter went on to say in her post in The Red & Black. Thanks to students' lobbying efforts, UGA is now considering switching over to a plus/minus grading system to give its students the opportunity to stand out to graduate schools and employers.

Earlier this month, UGA's Student Government Association unanimously voted for the addition of an A+ to the grading system. Now, students must wait for the University Council and president's stamps of approval.

"I think that anything we can do to make sure our students are on a level playing field to graduate and professional schools is really something the administration should look into," sophomore Cody Ashe told The Red & Black. Students are concerned that not having the plus/minus differentiation decreases the overall validity of grades, putting students at a disadvantage when compared to students at other universities.

In a highly competitive market, students want employers and graduate school admissions officers to know if they got a 97 in a class, while their fellow A recipients only got a 90.

Maurice Eftink, associate provost at The University of Mississippi (Ole Miss), recalled the university's decision to introduce the plus/minus system last fall: "A number of schools had moved to plus minus grading. And in terms of getting into graduate and professional schools, a plus/minus scale can look more attractive."

Ole Miss Senior Kate Kenwright agrees that having a plus/minus system makes the school look more legitimate: "But it's not just about the school looking good. It's for students too."

The plus/minus system creates a fairer playing field for students, Kenwright said.

"Most students who are coming through with A's aren't making a 97, they're making a 90," she said. "It's unfair for some students to be fighting for a 70 and get the same grade as someone with a 79."

The specificity of plus/minus grading also allows professors to form a better representation of students' work, Eftink said.

But according to Paul Rollins, the associate dean for administration at UGA's law school, the plus isn't a game-changer for graduate schools and employers.

"In terms of whether or not it is going to make a tremendous difference in whether students get admitted to law school, my sense of it is it makes little difference," he told The Red & Black.

Because graduate programs and employers are diverse, the value of an A+ depends on the program, Eftink said. But when comparing students of nearly comparable resumes, the ones with stronger grades are the ones who will be accepted--in this case, the A+ students, he said.

Although the plus/minus system may not significantly help students, it would have no detrimental effect at all, Rollins said. Like an A, the A+ would still correspond to a 4.0 GPA under UGA's proposed plus/minus system. In other words, when it comes to GPA, the A+ would be purely cosmetic.

But at Ole Miss, the plus means more, weighted as 4.3 under the GPA scale. Students initially resisted the change but have adjusted, Kenwright said. The new system has even encouraged her to work harder: "The desire to learn should drive student's academics. But in truth, it is probably grades."