The number of C grades that Hastings College of the Law doles out has much of the student body in a tizzy.
In a recent survey of the school’s 1,250 students, slightly more than 80 percent of the 543 respondents reported unhappiness with the school’s grading system. About 78 percent said it would be worthwhile to make changes — and a faculty leader said the school is likely to accommodate them.
The Hastings curve, which applies during all three years of study, allows for students to earn 20 percent A’s, 60 percent B’s, and 20 percent C’s. That, students say, puts them at a disadvantage on the job market against graduates from UCLA School of Law, where a different curve applies, or from Boalt Hall School of Law, which employs a non-grade system that bestows various levels of honors for a passing performance, and “no credit” for failing.
“I think the perception is, among many students, that having a C on your transcript harms your chances of competing,” said third-year Hastings student Andrew Ziaja, who authored the student opinion poll and presented the results at a student government meeting earlier this month. “The students responded very favorably to UCLA’s system and to Boalt’s. I think these systems are favorable because these are the schools that our students see themselves as competing with, and they want to appear on paper as close to these students as possible.”
Hastings deans have been aware of the issue and had previously asked the academic standards committee, made up of faculty and students like Ziaja, to look into the matter. Academic Dean Shauna Marshall said she is “pretty confident” that some change will be made, although it is too early to say what type. She said she expects the committee to submit a proposal to the faculty before the end of spring semester.
Ziaja believes Hastings students actually do quite well on the job market, but would like to see the system changed for other reasons. His biggest concern, he said, is the culture on campus, which he describes as marked by an overall competitive tension.
But job market perceptions continue to hold sway. More than 40 percent of Hastings students who responded to the survey from across class rankings said the curve “harms” their employment prospects, and another 30 percent said it “strongly harms” their career opportunities.
MORE THAN A MORALE BOOST?
Although a curve with a smaller slice of C’s may bring Hastings’ grading system closer in line with other schools, some say that a relaxation would likely do more for morale than for employment prospects.
“The curve should be relaxed because it’s the right thing to do and because the students become stressed about grades,” Marshall said. But, she added, “If you were in the bottom half with a C and now you’re in the bottom half with a B, the employer will still see that you’re in the bottom half. And changing our curve is not going to change that fact.”
She thinks what really informs the students’ outlook is that they’re in one of the tightest job markets in the country. Graduates from Harvard, Yale, Georgetown and Stanford all vie for work in San Francisco, where she says there are fewer jobs than in New York or Los Angeles.
Many law firm employers already understand that grading systems vary and take the differences into account.
James Kramer, West Coast hiring partner at Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, said he doesn’t expect a change in Hastings’ grading system to impact his firm’s ability to identify top students.
“We appreciate that each law school has a different grading system, and before going on campus to interview, we remind the on-campus interviewers what the specific grading system at that school is so we’re comparing apples and apples,” he said. “We don’t use the Stanford grading criteria to evaluate a Hastings student or vice versa,” he added.
But law schools across the country have still been watching each other’s moves to stay in line with the latest grading trends.
UC-Davis School of Law and UCLA School of Law, for example, have over the years loosened their curves or lifted mandatory grading guidelines from second- and third-year classes.
UCLA School of Law’s assistant dean for students, Elizabeth Cheadle, said her school has relaxed its curve twice in the last 20 years.
In the mid-1990s, the school shrank the C curve from 40 percent to 20 percent of the class, Cheadle said. About three years ago, the school dropped the C quota for upper-level students altogether. Professors are still told (.pdf) to hand out 5 percent to 8 percent C-plusses or below for first-year courses, though.
Cheadle said that changes were prompted by visiting faculty and UCLA professors who had taught at other schools, and observed that the law school’s curve was outside the norm.
“Our sense was that the real top-tier schools in the country were no longer having huge C ranges,” Cheadle said. “Faculty felt they were having to arbitrarily push people down to a grade they didn’t deserve.”
UC-Davis School of Law moved to relax its first-year curve about five years ago, to bring it more in line with Hastings and UCLA, according to Kevin Johnson, associate dean for academic affairs. (There was no curve for upper-level courses.)
Though Johnson doesn’t believe employment prospects have changed much since then, he said the shift has improved the mood on campus.
“We used to have 10 percent A’s, now we have 20 percent A’s in first-year classes,” he said. The recommended grading distribution for first-years is rounded out with roughly 60 percent B’s and 20 percent C’s.
UC-Davis School of Law Assistant Dean Hollis Kulwin said the faculty believes inequity in the grading system in the first year should be avoided, and the first-year curve encourages professors “to come up with a collective sense” of what an A performance and a B performance are. It also protects students from professors who might be too harsh, Kulwin added, by not allowing for all F’s or 50 percent C’s.
Johnson added that some schools still use rigorous grading curves to sift out poorly performing students who are less likely to pass the bar exam. “They’re worried about the U.S. News and World Report,” he said.