The Economics and Philosophy of Pity Grades
By Bryan Caplan
More students than I care to remember have argued with me about their grades. But there is one argument that I always dismiss out of hand: “You should raise my grade because I NEED a higher grade!” I don’t do pity grading.
You could argue against pity grading on reputational grounds. If employers, other schools, and parents knew that pity grading went on, it would make all grades less informative. Does this applicant have an A because he was an A student, or had a soft-hearted teacher? Did my son maintain the B average I demand through hard work, or by telling the teacher “My dad will kick me out of the house unless you give me an A-“?
I could make this argument, but it would be dishonest. The real reason I refuse to pity grade is not that it will degrade the informational value of grades. If raising a student’s grade would double his lifetime income, and I knew with absolute certainty that no one would ever find out, I still wouldn’t do it.
So why not bend the rules? My objection to doing so is that students should get the grade they earned. And this has nothing to do with how much higher grades would benefit them. Students who demonstrate their knowledge of the material deserve high grades, and students who demonstrate their lack of knowledge deserve low grades, and that’s all there is to it. In short, morally correct grading is about merit, not need.
What if some students had more opportunities than others? It makes no difference. A student who does not know labor economics fails my class, even if the reason he does not know it is because he had to work two jobs to support his grandma. Should we take Olympic gold medals away from the children of parents who supported their dream from the cradle on? I think not.
Maybe I deeply misread them, but I suspect that even most left-wing professors grade as meritocratically as I do. They may give extra help to students who come to office hours, but if a student spends 2 hours in your office every week and still fails the exam, you can’t let him slide.
To me, this reveals a basic inconsistency in egalitarian philosophy. If you assign grades based on merit, and merit depends on performance unadjusted for opportunity, then why shouldn’t the same principle hold for income and wealth? Just because you feel sorry for someone, why does that entitle them to a share of the riches of the more successful? And if you do not adjust for unequal opportunities when you grade, why should you adjust for unequal opportunities when you contemplate redistribution?
You could say that money affects people’s lives more than grades, but I beg to differ. The empirical evidence cuts the other way. Job satisfaction – which probably depends heavily on having the education and grades to open up the doors you want to walk through – matters a lot more for happiness than dollars of income. So if you really wanted to even out the ultimate inequality of life, you’d redistribute grades before money.
Yes, all this sounds harsh. I’ve never claimed to be a Bleeding-Heart Libertarian. What I will admit is that I often admire the student who comes in second despite his disadvantages more than the student who comes in first. But I see no inconsistency. Prizes are the wages of merit; admiration is the wage of virtue.