Mitchell’s Musings 5-9-16: Making the Grade

06 May 2016 5:11 PM | Daniel Mitchell (Administrator)

Mitchell’s Musings 5-9-16: Making the Grade

Daniel J.B. Mitchell

There is an old (but ongoing) debate about the economic value of general education, particularly at the level of higher education. We know that more education is correlated positively with what students eventually earn on the job. So there seems to be a reward by employers for added education. But is the association the result of some tangible job skill acquired with education? Or is there some kind of creeping credentialism under which workers compete for jobs by trying to be more educated than the average?

The debate is really focused on fields such as humanities and social sciences in which – apart from the academic labor market itself – the knowledge acquired in college courses is not specifically sought by most employers. For most jobs, as an example, your knowledge of English literature may not be called upon very often. Yet employers say that they want employees who have skills that they associate with general college education. In certain fields, e.g., engineering, particular skills that have a more direct vocational link to jobs can be cited. But in the humanities and social sciences, the skills involved seem to be more amorphous, e.g., ability to learn, to organize, to evaluate.

Once on the job, employees of all types are subject to some form of periodic evaluation. Most often, an important element of subjectivity is involved in these evaluations. In larger firms, some kind of evaluative rating is produced for various attributes and added monetary compensation may flow as a result of good ratings. Opportunities to advance on the job (promotion) may also be linked to the results of performance appraisals. Of course, some jobs entail easily countable outputs – widgets produced, value of sales made, etc.  However, even in jobs we associate with readily countable outputs such as production operatives in manufacturing, the use of mainly objective compensation systems (piece rates) seems to be in a long-term decline.[1]

In white collar and professional fields, a typical reward system – particularly where “countability” of output is low - is for employees to be evaluated by their supervisors for various traits and behaviors they exhibit. And such evaluation schemes are inherently subjective, even where formal personnel appraisal forms with rating scales and the like are in use. Being evaluated by your boss may be arbitrary or even unfair – particularly as perceived by someone who receives a low rating. But what is the alternative? As economists put it, there is an “agency problem” inherent in employment. The “agent” (employee) may not do what is required by the “principal” (employer) unless there is some process of monitoring and evaluation, generally tied in some way to reward.

So, getting back to higher education, what process found there is analogous to the real world of work? Grading is an obvious answer. The student (like an employee) is evaluated based on his/her performance in such assignments as term reports and exams and behaviors such as class participation. The evaluator is ultimately the instructor (like a boss/supervisor) even in large classes where there is delegation to teaching assistants (TAs). Although there is no direct pay linked to grades in college, opportunities for graduate school or scholarships or research assistant jobs are associated with good grades.

As it happens, I co-teach a course on California Policy Issues. I won’t go into details, but the course has been taught at UCLA since 1994.[2] It now enrolls 60 students and is routinely over-subscribed (wait listed). For various reasons, the sponsoring department would like to upgrade the course so that it would give students additional credit. To make the change, an application must be completed and submitted. The instructions for filling out the requisite application indicate that a syllabus should be part of the application and say that the syllabus should include a “description of grading policy, specifically, the percentage that each component carries in determining a student’s career grade.” (Italics taken from instructions)

Here is what the current syllabus in fact says:

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GRADING POLICY: Unlike other classes you will have taken at UCLA, we do not use a mechanical formula for course grading, i.e., X% for this; Y% for that.  We do look at such matters as your record in terms of absences, lateness to class, leaving class early, and failure to hand in assignments on time.  The two instructors make a joint judgment about the quality of your individual and team reports as well as other aspects of your record.  In making that evaluation, we look to see if suggestions we made on the outlines and drafts were followed in the final product.  In short, we evaluate student performance in PP 10b in the way real-world future employers are likely to evaluate you. Your real-world future employers are very unlikely to evaluate you on the basis of some simple formula of X% for this and Y% for that…[3]

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Exactly how this particular issue will be resolved has yet to be determined. However, there won’t be a change in the grading policy from its current subjective format. We will see whether the university powers-that-be will be flexible enough to accept a course that actually has workplace-like attributes when it comes to student evaluation.

So research alert for labor economists and educational specialists! We are about to have a direct test of the idea that what students learn in college is of general application to their later employment.



[2] I have posted about the course previously: and


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