Lerner Professor Daniel Lee’s Research Examines the Impacts of Grade Nondisclosure

Some of us might prefer to keep our college GPAs secret, but you’d think students at elite schools would be eager to share. Many don’t seem to be.

The idea of grade nondisclosure, which in general prohibits students from sharing their grades with recruiters or the general public, might seem restrictive, but it gets rousing support from MBA students at a handful of top business schools.

Whether students might be tempted to slack off under such a policy has been mostly conjecture, along with whether less information means companies aren’t as successful at finding good job candidates.

The University of Delaware’s Daniel Lee, an assistant professor of entrepreneurship in the Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics, joined with two other researchers to find some answers to these questions. Their findings, accepted in the journal Management Science and published online in July, are mixed. Yes, students tend to put in slightly less effort, but they also devote themselves to more extracurricular activities.

That shift to activities outside the traditional classroom is actually part of the idea behind grade nondisclosure. The phenomenon began at Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania in 1994, as a result of a vote by MBA students, and has caught on in a similar way at a small number of other elite universities including Cornell, Stanford and Columbia. (If you’re wondering, the Lerner College does not have this policy.)

The idea is that students, freed from the rat race of vying for the top grades, might feel free to take more difficult, and thus more helpful, courses, while also relying less on grades and partaking in valuable activities outside the classroom.

“We hope that grade non-disclosure will encourage students to take more academic risks and think holistically about their education, personal development, leadership and the impact they want to have in the future,” Vishal Gaur, then the associate dean for MBA programs at Cornell, explained, as quoted by Inside Higher Education.

Back in 2011, when his popular “Freakonomics” podcast was still in diapers, Stephen Dubner analyzed the trend of grade nondisclosure and wrote that students at elite universities might not need to share their grades — that is, they can count on companies being attracted by the reputation of their alma mater, in a way that students at less prestigious universities can’t.

Dubner noted reports that Wharton’s faculty didn’t love the policy, but that students kept enthusiastically approving it.

Is grade nondisclosure helpful or harmful? Lee isn’t saying, preferring to let the findings speak for themselves.

For the analysis, Lee said, they had access to a very high quality data set. This was pulled from several sources, including student surveys on time spent in classes, information on course popularity, ever-useful LinkedIn profiles and more.

They compared MBA students at high-ranking schools that use grade nondisclosure policies with students taking MBA classes part time, who take similar classes but are not subject to the same rules. (See the paper for more details on how they ensured the comparisons were valid.)

Students forbidden from sharing their grades, they discovered, did in fact put in about 4.9% less effort, as measured by time spent on coursework.

“What you would think is, if grades become less meaningful, people are going to put less work into their grades,” Lee said.

That had been one expectation, but there wasn’t hard data.

“Before, it might have been more speculative. Now we have this high quality number that we can put on it,” Lee said.

It did not appear that students were merely using their extra free time to party. They actually enrolled in more difficult courses and took part in more extracurricular activities, the paper finds.

An important emphasis at business school is networking and other parts of a holistic experience, Lee notes. It’s not just coursework, but the types of courses, the activities outside class, and interaction with recruiters.

The researchers were also interested in the effects on employment, writing, “Employers value GPA as a signal.” Without it, they wondered, would students be less likely to find a good fit with an employer, or end up with a desirable company? Or, might better-rounded students find better job matches?

While they didn’t discover direct answers to all these questions, their analysis of LinkedIn and company desirability from surveys led them to conclude that grade nondisclosure policies have an impact.

For one thing, students under these policies didn’t last as long with their first employer, working 3.7 months less on average. The likelihood that a student would keep a job at that first employer for more than a year dropped 7.7%. They were 12.8 percent less likely to keep a first job longer than two years, and 9.6% less likely to last three. (This could be for multiple reasons, the authors note, including that students graduating under these policies are better able to move around to new opportunities.)

Graduates with higher GPAs would typically be better able to find a job at a more desirable company. This statistical model shows that grade nondisclosure basically erases that advantage.

“Whether or not you want to engage in a scheme of grade nondisclosure is really up for you and your student body, and your recruiters and your alumni base to decide,” Lee said. But the findings also show that there is scope for business schools to offer robust and tough classes, and a rich set of student activities, he said.

This may be more relevant now than ever. The rise of artificial intelligence and cheap online learning opportunities have raised the question of what unique value business schools offer, Lee pointed out.

“I think looking at that unique value in this holistic sense [beyond just grades] is really valuable,” Lee said.

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