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Malnati: Rigor, prevalence of weed-out classes disproportionately harm students of lower socioeconomic status

James Malnati, Op-Ed Contributor

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As a sociology major, I often joke to my friends that I can’t get through a single lecture without the professor mentioning socioeconomic status at least once every five minutes. It’s been the definitive term of almost every course I’ve taken, influencing subjects from law and health care to the study of societal organizations in general. And while there is no “Sociology of Higher Education” course, I’ve learned throughout my time at Northwestern that failing to account for socioeconomic disparity incites many of the University’s shortcomings.

A major practice that fails to make NU manageable for students of all socioeconomic backgrounds is the overwhelming presence of weed-out classes, so much so that most students and even professors know exactly which courses fall under this title. These courses, found mainly in science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines, are incredibly difficult and scrutinize both students’ abilities and endurance. Thus, some students switch majors or drop out of the sequence, meaning each quarter there are fewer potential doctors, chemists and engineers. I think there is a certain sweet spot — late enough into a student’s undergraduate career when they’ve become comfortable with NU’s rigor but early enough to allow them to change majors if necessary — where these types of courses are useful to simultaneously challenge and test motivation. But the problem is that many weed-out classes are often introductory level, meaning many undergrads take them their very first quarter.

I often wonder if during the admissions process NU admits students who they assume will “drop economics after 201” or “switch from pre-med to communication studies after one quarter of orgo.” I would hope not, because this contradicts a major purpose of higher education: to function as a bridge between the student and a future occupation. When you have students of varying socioeconomic and educational backgrounds entering the same weed-out class their first day of college, chances are that students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds will be the ones weeded out. Not only is their prior quality of education likely to be lower, but they will also be used to less demanding educational environments. Since collaboration is vital in challenging courses, more affluent students often have an easier time because they have more groups and resources to draw from: the price tag of Greek life and popular extracurriculars like Dance Marathon, costly online study guides and even having friends in similar courses at comparable elite universities all come easier to wealthier students.

One of the first friends I made at NU was someone from a Chicago suburb just a few miles south of my West Side neighborhood. He was definitely smarter than I was and had breezed through his public high school, graduating at the top of his class and being NU’s only admit from his grade. I had gone to a rigorous “Northwestern in public magnet high school form,” graduating nowhere near the top of my class and having over a dozen peers also matriculate into NU. Not only was my family more financially well off in the first place, I had received an education comparable to an elite, expensive private school. Thus, not only was I more successful because my humanities-based coursework was simply less demanding than my friend’s pre-med load, I was more effective when studying and managing my time because I learned from all the mistakes I made in high school. On the other hand, my insanely smart friend was forced to withdraw from his opening quarter of Chemistry 131, an infamous weed-out course, and drop pre-med entirely because the ruthless combination of rigor and competition gave him little chance to succeed with the tools he had.

While many solutions could be beneficial, such as requiring professors to be more accessible, changing the way grading is curved or altering how courses are sequenced, the most effective way to eliminate this disparity is to allow all undergraduates to take their first quarter of courses pass/fail. This removes the power of socioeconomic background in influencing one student’s A- and another’s C- when neither is yet used to the college routine. Ideally, no student would be forced to drop their desired major due to poor performance their initial quarter. Instead, they would pass the class, potentially be informed of the grade they would have received on the traditional scale and be advised by their professor or Teaching Assistant about some areas for improvement. The idealist in me strongly believes that NU wants all its students to succeed, but unless policy changes are implemented, the “Sociology of Higher Education” simply reflects carelessness on the University’s end.

James Malnati is a Weinberg sophomore. He can be contacted at If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.