Study abroad grading policy raises questions of fairness

By Sidney Ainkorn

Macalester students go abroad with students from many other institutions, taking part in overseas programs that draw from schools around the country. Yet, in one respect, Macalester students are in the minority, because the grades they receive while studying abroad will appear on their Macalester transcript and will be figured into their GPA. Cecily Castle ’10 recently returned from a fall semester in Paris where she studied with students from Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Amherst, Fordham and Kenyon. She said Macalester’s policy made her the odd one out.

“I was the only person whose school was planning to take my study abroad grades and factor them into my GPA,” Castle said. “Several people actually laughed at me and my situation.”

Study Abroad Coordinator Paul Nelson sees the difference as a positive.

“It’s a point of pride for Macalester not to do what other institutions do,” Nelson said.

He believes that treating study abroad credit as other schools do, putting it on a transcript but not factoring it into a GPA, or leaving off the grades entirely “would send the message that academically study abroad is not that valuable,” something he hopes to avoid.

“Why shouldn’t their grades count?” Nelson said. “The academics abroad are not nearly as demanding as the academics here.”

Annie Flanagan ’09, an international studies major who enrolled in a program in Chile said that recording grades from abroad is not fair. She said that Macalester is not considering the fact that she did not take English-language courses.

“My grades were subject to the Chilean grading system, a system which is quite different than our own,” Flanagan said, “[and] I was being graded for my academic performance in a language which is not my first.It was my choice to immerse myself in Spanish and challenge myself but I felt that it was an unfair disadvantage to me rather than people who went on a non-language program or to somewhere where English is spoken.”

Elena Slavin ’10, who studied in Cairo, echoed Flanagan’s concerns about the differences between Macalester’s academics and programs abroad.

“There was nowhere near the same degree of feedback, explanations of expectations or overall communication regarding grades, exams, and general school information,” Slavin said.

Mac alumna Alanna Mozena ran into both administrative and grading trouble when she studied in Copenhagen in 2005.

“I paid full Mac price to go abroad.and I only got 12 credits instead of 16 for four classes,” she said.

On top of that, the biomedical ethics class she took counted as science not philosophy.

“I happened to do crappy in that class,” Mozena said, which lowered the science portion of her GPA that med schools look at.

Slavin said that there is too much variation in study abroad programs to apply a single grading system.

“Programs differ so greatly, from direct enroll in huge universities overseas like my own to smaller SIT programs. that it just seems strange to group them both into the exact same narrow qualifications at the end of it all,” she said.

According to Slavin people want “to immerse themselves fully in another place, which does not always translate to the lessons learned in a classroom or written on a whiteboard.” She took issue with the school’s focus on classes.

“I understand that Macalester wants study abroad to be a primarily academic experience,” Slavin said, “but at the end of the day I doubt most students go to their destination with that A grade in mind.”

Assistant Registrar Julie McEathron, who handles transcripts from study abroad, said that the registrar’s office “honors what’s on the transcript.” She said that students do sometimes challenge grades, and contact the host university or a particular professor for a grade change, just as they sometimes do with Macalester professors.

She said the office “would honor a grade change from that institution,” but it comes about “at the student’s initiative,” and the situation is not that common.

“Rarely are [students] surprised with what they come back with,” McEathron said.

Still, students going abroad may find themselves pitied by others with more lenient policies regarding study abroad.

“The policy.seems to reward not studying abroad or not challenging yourself by trying to master another language,” Flanagan said.

“The school systems are completely different from Macalester, different professors, course expectations and styles,” Castle said.

“These are institutions we have experience with and confidence in,” Nelson said about schools abroad. “Our students are never over-challenged.