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Why first-years in Econ 101 aren’t eligible for the Dean’s List

Students in Duke’s introductory economics course learned about opportunity costs before class even started. 

Administrators and economics faculty announced in April that the popular Economics 101 course will be graded as a “satisfactory/unsatisfactory” (S/U) course starting for Fall 2019. But because first-year students are only allowed to enroll in up to 4.5 credits during their first semester, first-year students enrolled in the course this semester cannot qualify for the Dean’s List.

“Nobody really thought to look at the fine print for things like Dean’s List,” said Connel Fullenkamp, director of undergraduate studies and professor of the practice of economics, who teaches the class.

To make the Dean’s List for Trinity College, undergraduate students must take at least 4.0 credits for a letter grade, and their semester GPA must be among the highest third of undergraduates in Trinity, according to Trinity’s website. S/U courses do not count toward this credit requirement and do not affect a student’s cumulative GPA.

It hasn’t been an easy road to implementation of the new grading policy, however. Just a week before first-year move-in, Fullenkamp and administrators still had not settled on a grading policy for the introductory course for Duke’s second-most popular major

Fullenkamp wrote an email to incoming Econ 101 students on Aug. 11 claiming that the course would revert back to traditional letter grading because grading on a S/U scale would disqualify first-years from Dean’s List, and S/U courses do not count toward an economics major or minor.

The following day, Dean of Academic Affairs John Blackshear corrected Fullenkamp’s email in a follow-up email to Econ 101 students. While Dean’s List eligibility was still unknown, he wrote the course would be graded as S/U this semester and count toward economics majors and minors.

One of the reasons why the Duke economics department switched to S/U grading, Fullenkamp said in April, was to match recommendations from Valerie Ashby, dean of Trinity College of Arts and Sciences, that departments redesign introductory courses to help students see the importance and relevance of their fields.

The new system is intended to relieve anxiety related to the transition from high school to college and increase the enjoyment in learning economics, Fullenkamp wrote. 

“You would think that having the class as [S/U] would reduce some stress, and in some ways, it does because you don’t have to think too hard about the grade,” sophomore Austin Shi, a current Econ 101 student, said. “Realistically, though, when you are still trying to learn material, sometimes you are still [very confused].”

To earn a grade of “satisfactory,” a student must only earn a letter grade of C- or higher. It falls to Fullenkamp, and all instructors of S/U courses, to draw the line that separates the “satisfactory” students from the “unsatisfactory” ones. He promised to “think very hard and very carefully about where the bar should be and what is should represent.”

Enrollment in Econ 101 has spiked this semester. Two hundred ninety-one students are currently enrolled in the course, which Fullenkamp said is at least 50 students higher than his previous record high-enrollment for the course. 

Despite the high enrollment, Fullenkamp hopes that each student earns a “satisfactory” grade. However, there is nothing he can do for the first-year students in Econ 101 this semester who want to make it onto the Dean’s List.

“Certainly, the hope is that we can convince the faculty to make some kind of exception or rewrite the rules for making Dean’s List,” Fullenkamp said. “Econ 101 is a mandatory S/U—you don’t get to opt in or opt out of this.”

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