New Research Discovers the Favorite Grade of Young College Men: The Gentleman’s C

Barry Lenson

New Research Discovers the Favorite of Young College Men: The Gentleman’s C

I wrote a blog post here a few days ago about Academically Adrift, a new book by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa. Since that post appeared, the book has gotten an avalanche of coverage on blogs, in the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor and even on the Microsoft Money site.

In case you missed the story, here it is in a nutshell. The authors of the book tracked 2,300 students at 24 colleges and universities. Using standardized tests, they determined that 45% of college students showed little academic gain after two years of college. They also found that after four years of college, 36% had learned nearly nothing.

Now, I don’t know exactly who those students were. The authors did determine that members of fraternities generally learned less than other students. (Think John Belushi in “Animal House.”) Also, they found that students who were engaged in a lot of off-campus activities didn’t learn as much as bookworms.

This research may be newsworthy, but it doesn’t surprise me. I graduated from two very prestigious universities and I am here to tell you that learning very little was a cherished academic tradition at them.

In my days in college, they called it the “Gentleman’s C.” It was a grade average of C that was the goal of a large number of men (women didn’t seem to pursue it) who were only interested in having fun while attending a big-name school.  Think beanies, raccoon coats and lots of beer – and I am not making that up. In some cases, the young men weren’t terribly bright, but they came from families that had long-running ties to the school. Their only goal was to graduate with a respectable C, then join Daddy’s firm or get leveraged into law or business school, thanks to family connections. (I realize I am making sweeping generalizations here, but if you want to do that, blogs are the place to be.)

If you doubt what I am saying, let me point to several “Gentleman’s C” dudes who got famous. One was George W. Bush. You can actually view his undergraduate Yale transcript online.  And if you do, you will see that he was not exactly a stellar student. Generally, his grades hovered in the 70’s, such as a grade of 71 in Political Science in his freshman year and an overall undergraduate average of 77.

Then we come to John Kerry. (I’m being bipartisan here.) At Yale, Kerry trailed only slightly behind Bush, and graduated with an average of 76.  And what about Al Gore, whose oratorical style approximates that of Moses? I didn’t have any luck finding his average anywhere, but according to his Wikipedia entry, he was in the lowest one-fifth of his class during his first two years at Harvard, where he spent a ton of time watching TV.

You see – the Gentleman’s C. And now new research confirms that it is there.

So count me among the people whose jaws didn’t drop when I found out that 36% of students are not learning much during four-year stints at American colleges.  But when you flip that statistic, you discover something surprising after all. Sixty-four percent of students actually are.

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