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Understanding grade point averages

By Matt Higdon, CPN Department of Education College Advisor

The COVID-19 pandemic has raised many questions about the physical health of our students and faculty in schools. However, many of our students may be overlooking the health of their grade point average, or GPA. For some students, this is a constant concern — for others, not so much. The CPN tribal scholarship requires students to have a minimum GPA of 2.5. Failure to maintain that 2.5 GPA can result in a student losing their financial assistance.

The 2020 spring semester was a trying time for many of our people, including those who were attending college. Many colleges closed their campuses and switched students to online instruction. At the same time that many of our students were stressing about their health or that of their loved ones, moving home from their dorms or apartments, dealing with loss of their part-time jobs, and re-acclimating to living at home, they were also adjusting to a new style of learning. This wasn’t just the case for our “traditional” college students. Many of our adult students, who were both commuting to college and working or perhaps were already taking online classes, felt the added pressure of dealing with employment issues or younger children now at home with them because their schools were closed. All of these additional stressors could, and probably did, affect students’ GPAs.

Colleges were aware of these issues, and many offered the option for students to take a “Pass” or “P” instead of a traditional letter grade for at least some of their classes. For classes that students may have been struggling with, or perhaps did not lend themselves well to online instruction, the “P” option was intended to keep students’ GPAs from taking a negative hit because of the pandemic. In many cases, it probably did help. For some, however, the pass/fail option may have resulted in a negative effect on the long-term health of their GPA.

To understand this phenomenon, you must first understand how GPAs are calculated, which isn’t something we automatically learn in school. So, how does GPA work? The grade point average is just what it says. Letter grades are assigned a point value. For example, As are worth 4 points, Bs 3 points, Cs 2 points, Ds 1 point, and Fs 0 points. Then, those points are averaged together, and voila — there’s your GPA.

What about the “P”? Well, it does not get any points. This is where the decision to take a “Pass” for a grade in one or several of your classes is important. Since the “P” doesn’t necessarily hurt your GPA, it’s important to remember that it doesn’t help it either. If you perform poorly in all of the classes for which you receive a letter grade and opt for a “P” in a class that could have resulted in an A or B, your GPA will suffer because the average will only count the lower-letter grades. Also, the number of credit hours associated with that class may weigh some grades more or less than others. The formula can get a little complicated, but fortunately, GPAs are posted on your college transcript each semester so that you don’t have to do all the math yourself.

If you receive the option to take a “P,” we recommend that you consider a few factors before making your decision. First, is there a strong chance you can get a good grade in the course? If so, it will boost your GPA to take the letter grade. If not, taking a “P” might be a good option to avoid decreasing your GPA. Second, how many credits is the class worth? If it’s worth several, think about how a high or low grade might affect your GPA. Third, how many total classes and credits are you taking that semester? Because GPA is an average that depends on the number of credit hours, a high or low grade will adversely affect your GPA when there aren’t other classes to balance out your performance. Finally, what is the deadline to decide? If you can delay committing to a “P,” that will give you time to determine whether a good grade is likely, which would make it unnecessary.

We are still dealing with the effects of the pandemic, and colleges may have to switch to online learning at any time. So, take the time to learn a little bit more about your GPA and how factors like the “Pass” can affect it. Your advisors here at the CPN Department of Education can certainly help you with any decisions you may be considering with your higher education journey. Just give us a call at 405-695-6028 or send an email to college@potawatomi.org to set up an advising appointment. We’re here to help.