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Why Universities Must Resist GPA-based Enrollment Caps in the Face of Surging Enrollments

By Carla E. Brodley

Communications of the ACM, Vol. 65 No. 8, Pages 20-22

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Computing departments face a challenging combination of forces: soaring student enrollments and lagging resources. On the face of it, it seems logical to respond by capping enrollments, and by far the most popular method in North Americaa is to set a minimum grade-point average (GPA) threshold for entry to the major (typically calculated from the student's grades in the first two-three courses of the major, plus a few co-requisites such as Calculus 1 and 2, and, occasionally, Physics 1). Although this might appear like a fair way to determine who gets into the major, it is inequitable and works at cross purposes to broadening participation in computing (BPC) efforts. Why? Because GPA-based enrollment caps calculated on a student's performance in CS1 and CS2 reward prior experience in computing. It is much easier to get As in CS1 and CS2 if you have taken computer science before. This has a direct impact on BPC efforts because prior experience in computing is not uniformly distributed across race, ethnicity, and gender. Simply put, GPA-based enrollment caps perpetuate the lack of diversity among those who study computing.

At the Center for Inclusive Computing, where I am the executive director, we have performed in-depth site visits over the last two years at 32 U.S. universities. Conversations with students, faculty, deans, department chairs, and advisors have revealed three additional ways in which GPA-caps run counter to BPC efforts, which I describe here.


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