How to fix the BA

Some modest proposals for restoring the grand old qualification.

Pity the poor Bachelor of Arts degree. Once a noble survival of the medieval tradition of scholarship, a tribute to the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, the BA is now denigrated as little more than a meaningless couple of letters. The degree is so common, it is now said, that no one with a BA stands out. And even if they did, employers soon learn that a BA graduate doesn’t necessarily have the critical thinking or writing skills that is supposed to justify the degree in the first place. As a result, we are told,  the only function of the BA is as a stepping stone to some other qualification. BA: Begin Again.

To some extent, this vision of the degree is not entirely a bad thing. If you want to be a high school English teacher, it makes sense for you to have a degree in English before getting your teaching training. Similarly, I think a lawyer should have a broad education that includes, say, some philosophy and history, before studying law. Indeed, what’s wrong with a marketing rep knowing something about abstract expressionism?

Still, if the BA itself is meant to confer qualities of mind that can be applied in any field (as I have often argued in this space), then something is surely wrong if employers don’t see the degree as conferring any advantage at all. Moreover, I am prepared to admit that the BA is a degree that one can manage to get through without learning a whole lot. I am a notoriously tough grader, but even in my classes, one doesn’t have to show any real brilliance to manage a D on a paper,  and many students do just enough to get get only that minimal passing grades. After all, why work hard for an A when you end up with the same degree at the end of it all?

The best way to solve these problems would be to provide universities with a lot more money and a mandate to accept fewer BA students. Tuition fees could be drastically cut which would reduce the drive towards mercenary training and allow programs to focus on big thinking skills. Class sizes could be reduced and, not relying on tuition to stay afloat, universities could simply kick out those who did not excel.

But assuming a huge influx of cash is not on the horizon, here are some other suggestions.

1. Universities should be required to institute meaningful minimum average requirements for all degrees. Some do already, but not all. At my august institution for example, there is no minimum requirement for a 3-year arts degree, apart from the 50% needed to pass courses. Requiring, say, a 65% average in courses applied towards the degree would go a long way to ending the practice of scraping by with barely acceptable work. At the same time, university departments would have to take care to ensure that their faculty members continue to hold students to the same standards, and don’t simply award a 65% for work that used to rate a 55%.  Such a move might hurt the bottom line at some places, but once it became clear that a higher standard was required, even mediocre students could manage that middling C.

2. Employers should more routinely ask applicants for copies of their transcripts. Such a practice would help them distinguish between a student who had really excelled and one who had merely endured. Knowing that their records may be viewed in this way, students would have a strong incentive to work harder.

3. All Canadian universities should award Latin honours(cum laude, magna cum laude etc) for degree holders, or some similar distinction for high achievement. Such honours should be based on one’s rank in the program (cum laude for the top 25% and so on), not on grade average since the latter might drive grade inflation. Having a BA summa cum laude would give the degree holder an extra advantage and would encourage all students to work harder to get into the top ranks. Thus even those falling a bit short would still end up with a better education than they might otherwise have received.

Any one of these solutions, widely adopted, might help restore the luster of a degree that deserves better than its current reputation.




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How to fix the BA

  1. I’m surprised that many universities don’t already award honours with the degree. At the University of Guelph, I received a B.Sc.Eng. with distinction. For all honours degrees, Guelph uses the following:
    -Degree with Distinction – Cumulative average of 80% or higher.
    -Degree with Honours – Cumulative average of 70-79%.
    -Degree with Standing – Cumulative average of less than 70%.

    Needless to say, I’m surprised that not all universities do something similar.

  2. Fifty percent is passing? Are you kidding me? In the public schools I attended in Georgia, as well as the University of Georgia, Augusta College (currently, Augusta State University) and the University of Illinois, passing was 70%.

    As to honors awarded at the University of Georgia in 1967:
    Cum laude – 90-92%
    Magna cum laude – 93-96%
    Summa cum laude – 97-100%
    Successful completion of the Honors Program – “Honors Program” imprinted on the diploma.

    Granted, this was between 1951 and 1989 in the United States, and, yes, I received an AB degree with a major in English and a minor in education. I have no regrets that my initial degree was an AB, and I would do it all over again, although my career choice would most likely change to better suit the needs of today’s world and other interests and strengths I have.

  3. Peach, when I was exploring graduate programs in the United States (after a high school and undergraduate education in Toronto), I was told that the general academic standard in Canada is 10% points higher than American colleges/universities.

    A Canadian 80% = American 90% and so forth. Not a reflection on the quality of students, but a reflection on the impact of grade inflation.

    • Earl, without question, the academic standard in Canada is of the highest quality. It is evident in talking to Canadians wherever I go. (I have lived in Canada since 1999.)

      Since you didn’t say when you were exploring grad programs in the US, I can only reply that overall, I believe there was a higher standard of education in the US at least through the 1980s when I was studying and teaching.

      As a sidebar, in the early 1970s, I was compelled by a principal to change the failing final grade of a junior high school student in my English class to a passing one so he could be “promoted” to the next grade at another school and become their problem. (This student was older than the norm for Grade 9 and a convicted criminal who had done few assignments during the term.)

      Back then, if I had refused to comply, I believed I would be “punished” in my teaching assignment; therefore, I did what was asked of me. Fortunately, laws have now been passed in Georgia that make such requests by a principal a criminal offense today, but teachers had few legal rights in those days.

      On the other hand, I acknowledge there has been a gradual “dumbing down” of education and a willingness to “inflate” grades in the US, at all levels, for some time, which troubles me, both as a US citizen and as an educator. I look forward to a time when there is a reversal of this trend!

      • My comment was not to compare quality of students, or the standard of education.

        I was looking into graduate school in Massacheusets in 2007. My comment was more directed at your incredibility that “50 percent is a pass.”

        I’m confident the right people rise to the top of the class wherever they go, but the yardstick has a different measurement of success based on jurisdiction. A 50 in Canada may in fact be equal to a 70 in Georgia, just like an 89 in Canada is equivalent to a 99 in Boston.

        Until there is a common measuring stick, simply remarking on a grade number is a false assumption.

  4. I disagree with the overall premise that the reason that the BA is devalued is because of students with poor grades receiving the same degree as those who received good grades. The devaluation of BA degrees (and to a smaller extent BSc degrees) is that university has become the new highschool in Canada. Over the last 40 years, Canada has gone from a society where relatively few people went to university, (and if you did you were typically above average intelligence, dedicated, and had money) to a society where a significant proportion of parents send their kids to university (with intelligence, dedication, and wealth spreading across the entire spectrum of the population).

    A BA degree was a big distinction when most people in an office had only high school education. Now-a-days everyone seems to have one, and it has become the new minimum standard.

    Look at Stats Canada’s #s, In 1986 ~1.3 million had bachelor degrees, in 2006 ~3 million people had bachelors degrees. The population (for people age 15 years and over) in 1986 was 19.6 million compared to 25.6 million in 2006. So despite the target population only increasing by 30% we have had a 238% increase in bachelors degrees (BAs being the largest proportion of these degrees).

    Companies, for the most part, don’t care about what people got their BA in, nor do they care about what grades they had. It has just become the new check box that companies now demand, since so many people have one.

    If you want the value of degrees to go up, you need to accomplish the herculean task of convincing companies to stop demanding degrees for all non-trivial office jobs, and convince the middle class that sending their kids to university might just be a waste of money and time (unless they truly know what they want to do and are dedicated to doing it).

    One method to do this (and it would no doubt be extremely controversial) would be to have students be required to pay the government subsidized portion of tuition (roughly equal to the cost students pay for tuition, as government pays for about half for citizens) if they did not work in a field related to their degree within a period of 5 years after a student has held the degree for 10 years (I would suggest a fairly generous interpretation of related field). The impact of this would be to weed out those who go to university such for the letters after their name.

  5. While many of the points here are valid, I would strongly disagree with the premise that employers should be asking graduates for their transcripts when hiring. There are so many other factors than grades to what makes a good employee, and universities now include many programs that prepare students for the workplace much better than academic studying to achieve the top percentile. Programs such as internships, co-op, student involvement on campus, work experience, etc, all do a lot towards educating a well-rounded, intelligent student that is more prepared for the workplace.

    Graduating with high grades and distinction is great, but there is a lot more required to being successful with your BA degree.

  6. One method to do this (and it would no doubt be extremely controversial) would be to have students be required to pay the government subsidized portion of tuition (roughly equal to the cost students pay for tuition, as government pays for about half for citizens) if they did not work in a field related to their degree within a period of 5 years after a student has held the degree for 10 years (I would suggest a fairly generous interpretation of related field). The impact of this would be to weed out those who go to university such for the letters after their name.

    I don’t understand the rationale of this at all. Generally speaking it is impossible to find a job in “history” or “English” and so work in one’s “field” immediately upon graduation. A liberal arts degree specifically does not provide a highly specialized or technical education. You can certainly concentrate your studies in a particular discipline, but working in that “field” implies an academic career.

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