Eli(on) the Issues: Study Abroad Grades

Hello from Prague!

I know I said I wouldn’t write about study abroad, but allow me to indulge a bit for this one column. On my program so far, I’ve met people from a wide range of universities. The schools represented run the gambit from the University of Missouri and the University of Colorado-Boulder to Georgetown and Williams. Course subject matter here ranges from economics and history to film and architecture.  The existence of sufficient academic rigor in many study abroad programs, this one included, is debatable however. European pedagogy is different than in the States, and as a result, home universities treat study abroad classes differently. There are three general ways these classes can be handled.

  • Elective credit given. Classes taken Pass/Fail.
  • General Education and elective credit given. Classes taken Pass/Fail.
  • Major, General Education, and elective credit given. Classes taken on the A-F scale; grades count towards the GPA.

As the bullet points go down, study abroad classes play a bigger role in one’s final university transcript. Colleges on my program have chosen one of these three routes. Penn State does that last one– the university treats study abroad courses like any other.

In an email, Dr. Kristi Wormhoudt, the Education Abroad Academic Coordinator, noted,

The policy on grades has been in place for many years—and I believe since the beginning for education abroad programs.  There is a Faculty Senate policy that states that no course taken abroad can be taken on a Pass/Fail basis.  Exceptions are only made by requesting in advance that a particular course be taken P/F or S/U, which is the PSU way to state it on the transcript.

At its face, there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with this policy. If you’re abroad, you’re taking time away from Penn State. You’re paying money, and you expect your coursework to further your degree (especially if the program is ‘Penn State-approved’.). Also, if you do well, you don’t want your semester abroad to be the ‘Forgotten Semester’ in terms of GPA.

There are several issues with Penn State’s policy though.

First, it discourages people from studying abroad. Second, it gives those that study abroad an unfair GPA boost. Third, and most important, it diminishes the prestige and value of the Penn State degree.

The simple truth is that college is hard work. After spending countless hours on schoolwork before studying abroad, students want a chance to unwind, to travel, and to not stress as much about things like grades and GPA. Switching to a Pass/Fail grading system alleviates much (or all) of the stress students feel about coursework abroad, instead allowing them, for likely the first time since kindergarten, to actually learn for the sake of learning, taking classes they like without concern for how their course selection might affect their grade. In discussions with students, staff, and faculty in six academic units at University Park in 2005, Faculty Senate Officers learned about the deterrent value of letter grades on study abroad participation, but nothing has come out of that august body about the subject since then. In our rapidly globalizing world, knowledge of, and appreciation for, other cultures is even more important than ever. Penn State should be encouraging students to study abroad any way it can. Changing the grading system would be one particularly effective way to do so.

As I mentioned earlier, the academic rigor of many study abroad programs is not on par with US schools. Deficient academic rigor means easier classes, which in turn leads to better grades than one would get at a home university. At Penn State and other schools that expect letter grades from study abroad, these better grades translate in to higher than average semester GPAs, putting those that study abroad at an unfair advantage when competing against their peers that couldn’t, perhaps due to financial circumstances, study abroad. Making grades from abroad Pass/Fail would negate this GPA advantage, while still ensuring that students can study abroad and earn credit.

Finally, perhaps the most compelling reason to change how abroad classes are counted at home is the unintended affect the current system has on Penn State’s prestige and the integrity of a Penn State degree. It’s a lofty charge to accuse these study abroad programs, the ones that supplement an excellent Penn State education, of weakening the end result of the very same, but if you think about it, that is really what is occurring.

I am spending the spring semester abroad. Some people spend the fall semester away from Penn State. Heck, some brave souls even spend the year. This translates in to one-eighth to one-fourth of one’s final PSU undergraduate transcript coming from a school that isn’t Penn State. Other schools on my program, like Georgetown and Williams, choose not to count abroad classes for transcript letter grades. The reason they do so, even if not explicitly stated, is that they want a Georgetown GPA to be a Georgetown GPA and a Williams GPA to be a Williams GPA, respectively.

I don’t mean to discourage people from studying abroad or universities from motivating students to do so, but we must realize that for a Penn State degree to be worth something, and a Penn State graduate to be even more highly sought after in the workplace, Penn State classes must be seen as unique. Taking a course abroad and having it count towards the Penn State GPA leads one to the conclusion that Penn State courses aren’t special and that they are equal to that of any Penn State-approved university courses the world over. For my sake, and for your sake, I hope this isn’t the case, and I hope Penn State realizes that an honest discussion about the merits of switching to a Pass/Fail study abroad grading system is in the best interest of Penn State students, the Penn State education, and the perception of Penn State the world over.

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About the Author

Eli Glazier

Eli is a junior majoring in International Politics. He enjoys paninis and books.

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