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Incentives matter, even in education

Two professors have been fired at Benedict College for flunking students who failed to learn what had been taught in class. I learned of this from Craig Depken at Heavy lifting, who is "left speechless" by the decision. King at SCSU Scholars offers some commentary, but is "not sure what to make of this case."

Here are the facts. President Swinton of Benedict, a historically black college in Columbia, South Carolina, instituted a grading policy whereby 60% of a freshman's grade was to be based on "effort," and 40% on performance. Effort is a subjective basis on which to grade, but elements which could be factored in were "attendance, completion of assignments and class participation." One of the professors refused to change an F for a "student whose highest exam score was less than 40 percent" (emphasis added)," claiming he could not pass a student who had clearly demonstrated he did not learn what was taught in the course.

Here's my take. I have sympathy for both the student and the professor in this case, because both were operating under a policy which minimizes the incentive to learn. If you tell students that they'll be graded largely on the basis of just showing up, that's all that some will do. That is a rational response to the incentive system. When the student got an F, he felt he'd been cheated, since the president's rules were followed by him but not the professor. But the professor can't do his job - getting students to learn - in a system in which the incentive to learn is mitigated.

A member of Benedict's board praises President Swinton for his "vision" in the article. "I think he makes decisions that cause you to really stretch, and I think that's a good thing. Sometimes we sit and are afraid to take a good calculated risk." Vision is a good thing, as long as it doesn't lose sight of the effects of incentives. President Swinton's policy has perverse incentives - students who arrive as slackers have lower incentives to change their study habits.

The policy reduces learning. Some students will arrive in upper level courses poorly prepared for their work, and will thus graduate with an impaired degree. It's the policy that needs changing, not the professors who refused to follow it.