Does SAIS Europe have the harshest grading system across the three SAIS campuses?

By Yilin Wang

WASHINGTON, D.C – If you have spoken to SAIS students who did their first year in Bologna, you likely already heard an impassioned speech about the harsh grading approach at the campus. In the course of a comprehensive investigation, the SAIS Observer spoke to students who spent a year at SAIS Europe or the Hopkins-Nanjing Center (HNC) in order to look into the alleged discrepancies in grading among the different campuses. 

“I do believe that the grade deflation is Bologna is much stricter, and several professors in Bologna really emphasize their focus on it, whereas I haven’t heard it emphasized in DC,” a former Bologna campus student reflected as they compared it to their experience in DC. “I did feel at times that I could not improve my grades because only one or two people per class were allowed to get A’s and only a handful for A-,” she continued. Similar viewpoints were shared among all SAIS Europe students interviewed during this investigation. As another student from SAIS Europe recalled, “Very few students could get A’s in Bologna, and this is true not just for economics classes but for other classes as well. I feel that my fellow students in Bologna usually have a GPA below 3.5 and a GPA of 3.4 would give you a good chance of getting SAIS Europe scholarships. However, I heard that in DC it is not rare for people to get a GPA of 3.7 or above.” 

Speaking more specifically about economics courses, an ex-Bologna student shared their experience in the Bologna Econometrics course with The SAIS Observer. “I remember that the highest score of the problem sets then was usually about 15 out of 20, and in the end only one out of 12 students in the class got an A. There is no curve for this class. In contrast, in the Applied Econometrics class here in DC, the professor gives around 30% of the students an ‘A’. The problem sets and quizzes are also not graded as harshly.” 

Why is this the case? Several students mentioned the reason could be that the Bologna professors usually apply a “European” grading system. 

“Many professors at Bologna are drawn from other parts of Europe and I guess they are used to the European grading system. They would set a standard, say 75 out of 100 points for the final grades. You could only get an A if your score lies above 75. But I think in the U.S., the norm is that they set a ratio for each grade level and distribute the grades accordingly, regardless of the actual score students get. Your grade depends on your position in the class,” a former Bolognese student speculated.  However, one former Bolognese student recognized that SAIS faculty in DC may consider the fact that more students work while in school at the DC campus and don’t have as much time to devote to SAIS. Thus, they may be more generous in terms of grading. 

Diving deeper into the alleged grading gap, the SAIS Observer spoke with students who also attended  the Hopkins-Nanjing Center (HNC). Notably, many HNC students must take classes in Chinese, a language in which they have limited proficiency. This language gap itself poses a challenge to students and may also factor into professors’ considerations when grading assignments. As former HNC student Mitch Blatt commented, “We could get high grades on our Chinese papers even though there were lots of grammatical mistakes and vocab errors. If a Chinese person turned in the same paper, they would probably get lots of points off. But the professors typically didn’t take any points off for our Chinese grammar mistakes as long as our meaning was clear enough.” Blatt also noted that classes at HNC may even be easier than DC for a student who is proficient or fluent in both English and Chinese.

With the language issue in mind, comparing grading systems between SAIS DC and the HNC is objectively more difficult. Nevertheless, students offered their own evaluations of the grading discrepancies between DC and Nanjing. One student who has experienced both campuses said they “would definitely say that grading is harsher in DC versus Nanjing. In Nanjing, because the students are taking classes and writing in a foreign language, I think that there is a bit more leeway with grading assignments. In particular, professors in Nanjing rarely cared about the way in which you wrote, even if it was awkward or stilted, because they were really only evaluating if you got your point across. On the contrary, my professors in DC are much more meticulous about your quality of writing and making sure that you write at a highly effective level with precision. I wouldn’t say it is a bad thing that grading is easier in Nanjing, as I think most of us would agree that our assignment quality is lower in Mandarin then it is in English. It’s just representative of the program.” 

Although differences in grading outcomes between economics courses at the HNC and in DC could provide a more appropriate case for direct comparison, having less influence regarding language difficulty,  many students do not take economics classes at the HNC. Former HNC students tend to agree that only a few students would take economics classes in Nanjing as the China-related classes there are much more attractive.

It seems that perceptions of grading discrepancy are most keenly seen between SAIS Europe and SAIS DC. What does this mean for scholarship applications? To get an answer to this question, the SAIS Observer consulted the Financial Aid Office in DC. Grading discrepancy, if there is any, would mostly influence situations in which students from DC and Bologna are directly competing with each other for certain scholarship or fellowship opportunities. According to the Financial Aid Office, “Students who are in Bologna that are U.S. citizens and are requesting renewal [of first-year aid] or new aid for their second year are reviewed with the DC students. Typically, this (the grading issue) does not affect the student being able to renew their aid for their second year of study. Aid for US Citizens going to Bologna is renewable based on maintaining a 3.4 GPA. If a student’s GPA were to fall below this, students may appeal and explain the reason for not meeting the standard. This also applies for students in DC. In most cases, if the grounds for appeal are valid, the Financial Aid Committee will approve the appeal.” One conclusion that could be drawn is that for U.S. citizens in Bologna who are newly applying for financial aid in the second year, grading discrepancies between Bologna and DC could pose a challenge. International students and dual citizens would not be affected as they compete directly with each other for financial aid provided by SAIS Europe.

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