When Good Grades Don't Count
by Ted Rueter
Thirty years ago, President Nixon nominated G. Harrold Carswell to the Supreme
Court. Carswell was attacked for being a mediocre jurist. Sen. Roman Hruska (R)
of Nebraska attempted to turn Carswell's perceived mediocrity into an asset.
"Even if he is mediocre," Hruska said, "there are a lot of mediocre judges and
lawyers. They are entitled to a little representation, aren't they, and a little
chance? We can't have all Brandeises, Cardozos, and Frankfurters, and stuff like
The celebration of mediocrity is in full bloom at Cuesta Community College in
San Luis Obispo, Calif. Cuesta has instituted a lottery system for admission to
its nursing program. This semester, 38 names were pulled at random from 156
"qualified applicants" - those with at least C averages in core courses.
According to the chancellor of California's community colleges, grade point
averages are an "artificial barrier" to professional school admission. "We can't
discriminate in favor of students who get A's over students who may be getting
B's," says Amy Grant, dean of nursing instruction at Cuesta.
The chancellor's office, Grant says, stipulates that a community college must
prove that getting a C in anatomy demonstrates that a student couldn't succeed
in its nursing program. Otherwise, the college had to eliminate its grade-based
Mary Parker, dean of nursing at Cuesta, argues that "just because you have
straight A's doesn't mean you're going to be a good nurse." Parker also
maintains that distinguishing among GPAs is impossible, given that a C student
may be a single mother holding down a full-time job, while the A student may be
a 19-year-old full-time student living with her parents.
Prior to this year, nursing school admissions at Cuesta were determined by grade
point average, recommendations, medical experience, and an interview.
College officials deny that they are attempting to circumvent California's
Proposition 209, which bans affirmative action in state hiring and admissions.
Many residents support the lottery. A letter to the San Luis Obispo
Telegram-Tribune said, "Your underlying assumption is that A students are
brilliant, incredibly hard workers, and C students are stupid, lazy slacks.
Wrong. Many great leaders, educators, authors, scientists, and artists
throughout history were not A students."
There is substantial anti-elitism in American life. Job applicants are rejected
for being "overeducated" or "overqualified." David Halberstam wrote scornfully
of "the best and the brightest" and the "whiz kids" who got us into Vietnam. The
intellectually inclined are dismissed as "eggheads." Many college students wear
Homer Simpson T-shirts: "Underachiever and proud of it." NBA players who
threaten to kill their coaches earn more in two weeks than many educators earn
in a decade. And Dan Quayle or Ronald Reagan certainly didn't win admission to
Phi Beta Kappa.
The Cuesta lottery admissions program is consistent with the nation's revolt
against academic standards. The Boalt Hall School of Law at the University of
California-Berkeley no longer distinguishes between a 4.0 from Cuesta and a 4.0
from Harvard. More than a quarter of college freshmen need tutoring or remedial
courses in math. Many college administrators call for the elimination of the
Others are not so contemptuous of meritocracy. Susan Jolly, an A student at
Cuesta College who didn't win the admissions lottery, complains, "You work so
hard for so long, to get really good grades in really hard classes. Then you
find out it doesn't matter."
Published in The Christian Science Monitor, December 12, 1997