Here in South Korea, there is really no room for second place. Adults and students alike, are expected to go hard or go home. Despite the fact that South Korea is not so sympathetic about being in the second place, they are extremely hearty about giving people a second chance, a chance to erase their past failures. For university students, this second chance is provided through a policy that allows students to repeat courses they did not excel in. With minor regulation against repeating courses, retaking a course to “clean out” the transcript has become a new norm. In a high achiever’s perspective, an A sounds reasonable but anything below B+ may be considered ridiculous. When course retaking policy was first introduced, it seemed like a charitable move by universities to ease academic stress on students. Under this new policy, the universities could somewhat support graduating students to find a better job. Unfortunately, the backlash of this policy brought on a vicious cycle of hyper-grade inflation.
Grade inflation refers to an exceptionally high percentage of undergraduate students who graduate with a high Grade Point Average (GPA). According to research done by Korean Council for University Education, approximately 91 percent of the students graduated with a GPA of a B or above. With so many high achievers pouring out of universities, the rows of ‘A’ on the transcript is losing its radiance. In order to distinguish themselves from this inflated average, the students are forced to study harder to pull up their average even higher, often by retaking the course. Although students’ willingness to study even harder is admirable, the result of grade inflation has made students’ efforts unrewarding. There is no one to blame. Universities merely offered a second chance, and students simply took that opportunity. Everything comes at an economic cost. In the case of retaking a course, it means the student have to spend more time and money to stamp out a more satisfying grade. The question is, who or what we are trying to satisfy, and whether this is the right choice for everyone.
Despite the earnest efforts from both sides, it is undeniable that we got more than what we bargained for. Universities known to be generous with GPAs find their reputation at stake, while their students often placed at a disadvantage. Meanwhile, students face conflict with their professors and peers. Some students wind up negotiating with their professors to intentionally lower their mediocre grades to a C+ (the minimum requirement to retake a course). If the professor agrees, the professor must readjust the grading curve for other students. However, there is palpable hostility when the professor refuses to negotiate. Other students also complain that without a grade ceiling it is unfair for the students who are taking the course for the first time to be graded equally as a student retaking the course. As of February this year, fifteen years after Seoul National University (SNU) has first implied policy for repeating courses, the school has announced its new regulation regarding repeating courses. The regulation, which will take effect next year, has imposed a grade ceiling at A0 for students who repeat the course. By imposing this ceiling, the university hopes to relieve the pressure on students from retaking courses, and to attempt some control over grade inflation. The school’s motives for setting a grade ceilings sound legitimate. But the results may be merely superficial.
Here is a reality check. We have been students for most of our lives, where our transcripts have been the only standard measurement of our qualifications. In a society where second place is virtually non-existent, and with so many high achievers, grade inflation was inevitable. Ever since we were in elementary school, our grade was a form of currency. But soon after graduation, this currency is about to change. Though it will not become worthless, but it will lose its value. We are so eager to invest our time and money, thinking that a better GPA will somehow promise a better life, while in fact we are devaluing our own worth by aggravating grade inflation. Will a perfect transcript be a silver bullet through our ambiguous future? University life should not be about perfection, but it should be about building relationships and experiences, making the wrong turn over and over again to begin our endless search for our constantly changing desires. Those out there in the real world are not looking for the perfect transcript, they are looking for students with a wealth of experiences, a quality far more valuable than our ability to answer multiple choice questions.
Son Young-min email@example.com
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