Making the Grade

Me learn Photoshop one day.
The average GPA of an SFU student varies widely by department.

What do you think the average GPA of a student in your department will be this fall?

The graph above displays the mean grades by department at SFU, averaged from 2008–2013 in 3rd and 4th year courses. As you can see, there’s a big difference between mathematics on the left side of the graph at around 2.5 GPA, and education on the right at approximately 3.5. Depending on the department at SFU, an average student will receive significantly higher or lower grades.

When funds for students, such as Undergraduate Open Scholarships, are allocated based on GPA, this difference could affect that distribution. So, where does this difference come from and how is it affecting students?

When asked for comment on why Education gives out the highest average GPA per student at SFU, the Dean of Education, Dr. Kris Magnusson, observed that it “should not be terribly surprising that the Faculty whose research and practices focuses on teaching and learning should lead the way in the attainment of measurable learning outcomes.” He also noted that the “vast majority” of upper division students in the Education Department are in the Professional Development Program (PDP), a structural factor that he argues raises the department’s overall average. It’s worth noting that PDP students are not eligible for SFU’s Open Scholarship.

If differences in GPA between departments are impacting the distribution of scholarships, are there fairer alternatives to consider?

However, the chairs of other departments were more concerned about the difference in average GPAs. The chair of the Department of Mathematics, Dr. Manfred Trummer, described the gap between departments as “worrying,” and Dr. David Jacks, chair of the Department of Economics, explained his department’s low grades as a result of “coordination across the department [which] reduces the ability of, and incentives for, any given instructor to engage in grade inflation.”

Dr. Stephen Easton, professor in the Department of Economics and faculty senator on the Senate Policy Committee on Scholarships, Awards and Bursaries was unequivocal in stating that “there are clearly different grading norms among departments [and] departments have autonomy in this [regard], within relatively wide bounds.” How might this autonomy impact the distribution of scholarships and awards?

The Undergraduate Open Scholarship is awarded to students whose SFU cumulative grade point average (CGPA) is above 3.67. As such, it currently does not take into account potential differences in grading standards between departments; the assessment criteria assumes that student merit alone accounts for GPA.

The case at UBC is somewhat similar to SFU. However, data obtained from their Office of Planning and Institutional Research was by subject area, not department, so it is difficult to make an exact comparison with SFU in terms of departmental discrepancies in average GPA. In 2012, the two subject areas with the highest average grades were Global Resource Systems and Education Psychology and Special Education; the subjects with the lowest averages were Psychology and Math, mirroring those subjects’ relatively low GPAs here at SFU.

Similar to the Open Scholarship is UBC’s Trek Excellence Scholarship, which is awarded based on academic merit and does not require an application. It is given to students in the top fifth percentile of their respective faculty or school. As such, it could potentially be affected by the differences in average GPAs between subject areas.

Dr. Jacks, notes that it is likely that “disparities in average grades would [lead to] disparities in the proportion of students holding [Undergraduate Open Scholarships] by department.”

When asked about grade disparities between departments, Manoj Bhakthan, director of SFU’s Financial Aid and Awards office, acknowledged that their office is “aware of grading differences across the faculties,” but added that these grading differences are strictly “academic decisions.” It is unclear how much these differences among departments affect the distribution of the Undergraduate Open Scholarship; when a by-department breakdown was requested, we were informed that these statistics are not publicly available.

So, if the differences in GPA between departments are impacting the distribution of Open Scholarships, are there fairer alternatives to consider?

Though Dr. Easton cautioned that there is no perfect model, he proposed a new formula to ensure that recipients of Open Scholarships are “as above the department mean in one department as another.” In Dr. Easton’s system, student GPA is subtracted from average departmental GPA, which is then divided by the standard deviation multiplied by average departmental GPA — the result

is therefore weighted to account for the difference in average GPAs by department.

In turn, Dr. Magnusson pointed out in an email that the high school admission averages to the Bachelor of General Studies are some of the highest in the university.

He noted that, “High performing students prior to admission tend to continue to do as well in their Education courses.” If student quality does differ significantly between departments as reflected in the difference between average GPAs, Dr. Easton’s system would not reflect this reality.

Of course, another issue with adopting a model that is not based on GPA alone is that it would essentially amount to a public admission by the university of the significance of grade differences between departments — potentially endangering SFU students’ chances of receiving external awards.

Whatever the feasibility of an alternative, it is impossible to know the extent of the effect of departmental GPA differences on the distribution of Open Scholarships as long as information on that distribution is kept from the student body. As a public university, Simon Fraser should make the by-department GPA breakdown available. Students need to be informed about the effects of the school’s current policy and make up their own minds as to its fairness.


  1. When I was in the PDP program at SFU, we did indeed have a high GPA, but that was probably related to the extremely high GPA’s that PDP qualifiers already possessed. I had an A- average in my BA and and an A average in my MA, and I barely qualified.

    For what it’s worth, the GPA/scholarship issue is an old one. I took my BA at UVic in the mid-80’s, and people were upset that most of the large scholarships (which were admittedly few at UVic) went to Psychology students. The department rankings showed that the Law faculty had the lowest average GPA, and Political Science had the second lowest. Psychology, of course, was at the top. Departmental GPA numbers should be available like they were in my day; it’s the only way to have a real conversation that can lead to greater fairness.