Your wish is my command. Just don’t hold your breath waiting… A very confusing primer on college degrees and grading.

by Janie Jones

So, I feel totally ashamed.  I have been meaning to write this post for a while now, but I had no idea I’d left Tilly hanging for over a month.  Naturally you’ll all remember that when gloating over my good grades Tilly expressed her curiosity at the convoluted workings of the system of higher education we have here on our side of the pond.

I apologize.  I have no excuse.  I mean I’ve only been getting nuked, driving in excess of 160 miles a day, and dealing with retail world idiot managers and college students who have worse grammar than my seven year old.  But, really that’s no excuse.

And, now after all this time, the pressure is really on to make this post worth the wait.

Without further ado:

Most Americans generally enter “college” after completing high school (the highest level of ‘required’ education) around age 18.  However, you get the “non-traditional” students like myself who for one reason or another put off higher education when young or are returning to gain additional education.

In my experience, higher education consists of primarily 4 levels:

  • a 2 year degree, which depending on your field of study may result in your attainment of an Associates of Arts, Associate of Science, or Associate of Applied Science degree;
  • a 4 year degree, which typically results in attainment of a Bachelor of Arts or a Bachelor of Science degree, but there are other designations of Bachelor’s degrees that are earned but are less commonly known such as the Bachelors of Arts and Science;
  • a 6+ year degree, which results in a Master of Arts, Master of Science, or other designation like, Master’s of Public Health;
  • and after that you are into a Doctorate degree, doctorates can be PhDs, which is a doctor of philosophy, even if you didn’t study the discipline of philosophy, or a MD, which is the doctorate earned by a medical doctor.

Okay, clear as mud?  Good.  This is a very basic breakdown.  Of course there are different kinds of higher education one can earn that falls outside this structure, such as professional degrees, and certifications.  But I don’t know much about those beasts.

So some people progress through their education in the order listed above.  First they get an Associate’s level degree, then move on to a Bachelor’s degree, etc.  However, many people skip an Associates and go straight for a Bachelor’s degree.  Some disciplines and schools also offer the fast track to a doctorate level degree.  I once knew a veterinary student who got accepted to a veterinarian program that you began working on your DVM (doctor of veterinary medicine) straight away and earned your Bachelor’s and Master’s as a matter of course along the way.  I remember one day she got a big envelope in the mail.  “Oh, look!”  She said, “I’ve just got my Bachelor’s.  How cool is that?”  True story.

Now Your Good Friend Janie, is one of these non traditional students.  Back in the early 90’s I got an AAS in nutrition (a 2 year Associate’s level degree) I then preferred to quit school and go to work.  Fast forward 18 years or so, and now I want to bump up to a Bachelor’s level degree.  Some people get credit for the first two years they put in on an Associate’s degree.  But not Janie.  Nope.  I picked a field of study that will give no credit for my time put in on my AAS.  There are some infuriating, but I must grudgingly admit, logical reasons for this, so I have to start over and may in the end need more than 4 years to get my Bachelor’s.

Sound confusing?  Well it is.  See, each college or university has it’s own rules and curriculum.  And they are not required to give credit for the same course if completed elsewhere.  Plus, depending on your field of study, you will have different requirements from one degree to the next between programs even within the same college.

When I got laid off a year and a half ago, I wanted a Bachelor’s degree so I could check of that box on job applications.  So I scoured the closest college offering Bachelor’s degrees and picked the degree that I thought I could get the most credit for my AAS.  That seemed to be a BASc in Community Health.  Unfortunately after working toward my BASc for a 2 semesters, I discovered that I absolutely hated the program.  Unfortunately I couldn’t get out of it right away so another two semesters were spent basically killing time until I could get my track changed.

Now I am happily majoring in Biology and minoring in Chemistry.  This will eventually result in me obtaining a Bachelor’s of Science degree.  Because most of what I’ve taken the last 4 semesters does not give me credit in this program, I have at least 3 and a half more years ahead of me, in which I need to be able to work up to successfully completing at least one semester of calculus, one semester of statistics, two semesters of writing, 3 years of Chemistry, 4 years of various Biology courses, a year of Physics, and 60 credits of “liberal education” courses including a year of foreign language to make up for my high school deficiency in foreign language.

Cha-ching!  I have completed one semester of writing, one year of foreign language and 57 liberal ed credits.  You go Janie!

So, now you have the answer to part of your question.

How do grades work?

Well, different colleges can have slightly different systems, but most use a 4 point grading system tied to a letter grade.  In fact, most high schools and some middle schools use this system too.  Basically you are given a letter grade, A being the highest grade, then B, C, D and F.  A’s are assigned 4 points, B’s 3 points, C’s 2 points and D’s 1 point.  Your GPA, or grade point average, is calculated by adding together all your points and dividing by the number of classes.  Clear as mud?  Excellent.  Now some teachers just give you a letter grade on an assignment, but in some classes your letter grade is determined by your number score earned for your assignments.  Some teachers have a grading system based on a percentage of points earned.  Say you can earn a possible 100 points on an assignment, if you get a 90 % you might earn an A, 80% a B, and so on.  Typically anything less than a 60% is an F, or failing grade.  However, some teachers have a higher standard, where a 94% is required to earn an A.  Still clear as mud?  Great!

Well, that I think is the higher education system in a nut shell.  And if you understand this, I will give you an A in comprehension of the nearly incomprehensible.  But lest you think you’re all hot stuff getting an A, just remember, every teacher, every program and every college can have different grading requirements.  So just when you think you know what expectations are, in your next class you might be graded on a different scale or criteria.  But, while the manner in which your grade is calculated can vary, in the end, or your GPA is simply based on the aforementioned 4 point scale with 4 being the top end.

Still got it?  Awesome.  We will stop here.  I’m not about to explain class ranking.  That gets really convoluted, and I don’t even know mine.  But, I will say that class ranking is used to determine your position in the grading spectrum amongst all your peers in your “year.”  For example if you ever hear the term, “graduated in the top 10% of his class” that’s your class ranking.

No wonder why most college students spend so much time drinking.


2 Comments to “Your wish is my command. Just don’t hold your breath waiting… A very confusing primer on college degrees and grading.”

  1. Thanks you and good grief! You need a degree just to fathom it all out.

    Can you explain majors and minors?

    Also, I was watching The Waltons and John-Boy took a Literature degree but was failing maths or biology or something. Do you take subjects unrelated to your degree to obtain your degree?

    Thanks for taking time out from a difficult period in your life to explain this. I do appreciate it even though I don’t understand it. I’m going to lie down with a wet cloth over my eyes to recover.

  2. Wow, my sad and confusing explanation didn’t throw you off American education?!? Growing up with it makes it seem “normal” even if it is a bit complicated to explain.

    Majors and Minors are tied to the type of education you get. A science related degree, as you might expect, involves more science courses. A history degree obviously would require a significant amount of history courses. So, when you declare an area of study, that is generally your major. However, a mostly universal concept from school to school is the idea that a two year degree is about 4 semesters and a 4 year degree is 8 semesters. On average, most schools consider a semester to be 15 credits. Credits tend to reflect the number of hours of education you get per week during the semester. So, a 1 credit class generally meets for one hour (but some schools calculate differently or use trimesters just to make things even crazier). The idea is that to earn a 2 year degree one must receive about 60 credits, or hours of class time, and a 4 year degree 120, to be adequately educated. Most programs, however, don’t simply allow you to take 60 or 120 hours of related course work and “bam!” you graduate. The department under which your Major is administered decides how many courses you need to sit for and pass to receive a degree in your Major. Sometimes your Major requirements are substantially less “time consuming” than the number of credits you need for a 2 or 4 year degree. In these cases you will generally be required to declare a Minor. Some people are crazy, and they double major, or major and double minor, but again, I say these people are crazy, and usually brilliant or stupid (brilliant because they love school and want to learn everything about everything, or stupid because they can never stick with anything so end up finally graduating with a gazillion credits in disparate things and their academic advisor finally says, “for the love of God, John-Boy, please just take one more class on Roman Basket Weaving while studying Feminist Authors of the Regency Period and finally get your Bachelor of Arts degree with a double major in Literature and Art History and graduate before you are here for a seventh year!”). This is usually less common in 2 year degrees, because you obviously have less time to “kill” while pursuing your major studies. When required, minors are encouraged to be something relating to your major or that would conceivably be a useful skill to someone in a career that your Major prepares you for, but some schools are more lenient in this area than others. For example, I wish to earn a Bachelor’s Degree with a Major in biology, but biology courses alone will not give me enough credits to graduate, so my school requires all biology majors to declare a minor. There are many things useful to minor in with a biology degree. At various times I’ve contemplated several possible minors; anthropology, philosophy, and environmental health, but I feel that a chemistry minor will be most useful and get me enough credits to graduate fastest with out far exceeding the minimum credits needed to graduate.

    So, to recap: Your major is basically what your degree is in, Biology, Math, Political Science, Literature, Education, etc. Your minor is a sub-field of study that usually augments your major studies and helps you achieve enough credits to graduate.

    Now, poor John Boy, he and I have an arch nemesis. The liberal education requirements. It is generally not enough that a person declares a major, and when necessary a minor. In attempt to make graduates “well-rounded” almost all colleges and universities I know of make students take other “liberal education” classes. There generally isn’t as much emphasis on declaring a minor in 2 year degrees, as there really isn’t much time, but, when I went to school the first time for my AAS in nutrition, in addition to my nutrition classes I was still required to take so many credits in other areas like literature and social science for example. Schools in my home state now require 60 credits of courses covering 10 fields of study incorporating language, math, writing, physical science with and without lab work, social science, history, literature, art appreciation &/or performing arts, and physical education (optional). Of these 60 credits, at least once course has to encompass cultural diversity from a “local” perspective and at least one must incorporate cultural diversity education on a global level. Furthermore, my university requires all students who have not completed at least one year of foreign language and 3 years of math attaining at least the College Algebra level in high school to amend their deficiency prior to being eligible to graduate. All these requirements are in addition to your majors program requirements and any minors program requirements, however, in some cases, certain classes may give you credit toward multiple agendas. Still with me?

    My high school, many moons ago, only required students to sit for two years of math and foreign language was optional. Hence, I had to take Spanish last year. In addition to my high school deficiency in math, my major’s program requires at least one semester of calculus and statistics. So, needless to say, I need to get cracking on my math courses in order to graduate. The folks in the academic advising department put me directly into College Algebra last summer, but my math skills having not been exercised in anything more complex than figuring my bank balance (zero plus zero minus zero is still zero) were found severely lacking, so it’s off to remedial math I go in the fall. Then I have to work my way up the levels of math until I understand the marvels of Newton’s brilliant calculus. I anticipate myself sounding a lot like a little blue train in subsequent semesters, “I think I can I think I can I think I can.”

    Normally I am petrified of “the maths,” but I can see how they would potentially be useful to me in my major and minor coursework, and I’m really sick and tired of not following people and having to say, “I don’t know how to do calculus.” When I took astronomy last semester the professor kept assuming everyone knew how, and because I didn’t I always got those questions wrong on exams. Luckily, it wasn’t enough to kill my grade, but it was frustrating. So, if I can kick butt in math, I’ll be just fine.

    So how was that? Any more questions? I hope you don’t require a second dose of cold compress to the forehead after reading this, but my dear, you did ask for it… 🙂

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