Study abroad GPAs called inconsistent

By Zach McDade

At Macalester, with its emphasis on community engagement and internationalism, over 100 Macalester students study in different countries each semester. They study at a variety of foreign universities through a variety of programs in multiple languages.

Despite the inherent variation across this range of programs, the school has a blanket policy that counts all study abroad credits toward student grade point averages (GPA).

Macalester endorses numerous study abroad programs with different schools and organizations; these programs are evaluated by the International Center to ensure they meet guidelines established by Macalester. The school has two established programs of its own.

According to Provost Diane Michelfelder, there are no explicit mechanisms in place to ensure that very different programs—those where students learn in Russian vs. those where students learn in English, for example—are evaluated in an even manner.

The result is that, last semester, a student went to Ireland, earned eight of 16 credits in a non-classroom, English-speaking internship, while another student went to Russia, took four classes in Russian and due to the language barrier, received “the lowest grades” she had ever earned. The grades lowered her cumulative GPA by 0.3 points.

Registrar Jayne Niemi said that there could never be perfect congruity among study abroad programs. This is not much different, she said, from classes at Macalester in which different professors grade differently.

However, neither she, nor Michelfelder, nor Dean of Academic Programs Ellen Guyer knows why study abroad classes count toward GPA. This hasn’t always been the case—the school made the switch to this policy in the mid-1990s.

The student who studied in Russia—and wished to remain anonymous—said that she was the only student in her study abroad program whose classes counted toward GPA. All the other students, she said, were from “Macalester-tier” schools like Mt. Holyoke, Williams College and Connecticut College.

In evaluating the overall purpose of study abroad, Niemi said that the goal is for study abroad to enhance and compliment study at Macalester. “The goal is to make it an integral part of your coursework,” she said.

She declined to say whether this goal merited counting classes toward GPA. Overall, Macalester students do well in their study abroad programs, she said.

Ana Heath ’07, who studied in Cameroon last semester, said that her coursework abroad proved to be a boost to her Macalester GPA.

“Cameroon was very good for my GPA,” she said, adding that most students she knows also received GPA boosts from studying abroad.

According to data gathered International Studies chair David Moore, study abroad GPA’s have not been appreciably different than Macalester GPA’s. His data also showed that students who generally did well at Macalester did well abroad, and vice versa.

This was not the case, however, for the student who studied in Russia.

“I got so much out of it personally and culturally,” she said, “and my GPA doesn’t reflect that.”