My sister has Down Syndrome. She has received special accommodations at school her entire life and those resources are a key reason why she is able to hold a job and be independent. Since she received these accommodations, and because she took different classes than other students, she was graded on a different GPA system than her peers.
I believe Penn should do the same for our students who are receiving resources that they cannot receive in the workplace, as my sister did, or they should stop giving these resources entirely. I have ADHD and receive prescribed medication which I can continue to do for my entire life if I choose to, but accommodations like receiving extra time on tests end on graduation day.
Students who receive accommodations can get 1.5 to two times the time other students receive to complete exams, homework, or any other work required at Penn. To receive this extra time, students either need to prove that they had extra time in high school or they go through Penn’s process to determine whether they should receive accommodations, which I learned by calling the Weingarten Center. For some, the process of receiving accommodations can be fairly simple, but can be different depending on the condition and medical history.
I interviewed a student who received extra time and preferred to remain anonymous. Their experience started with a conversation at Weingarten, Penn’s program for academic support and disability services. Weingarten sent them documentation for their doctor to fill out to prove that they needed help.
They took the document to a doctor at the Student Health Service, who performed some tests and sent them to a specialist to receive a preliminary diagnosis. A few days later they received a letter from Weingarten detailing which accommodations they had been granted and which ones they hadn’t.
All of their requests had been granted. For exams they received 50% extra time and 10-minute breaks after every hour of testing that are not counted towards total exam time. Additionally, they have a lenient attendance and assignment policy that lets them miss classes and assignment deadlines if their condition requires.
All in all, the process took them two weeks. The incentives for receiving time accommodations are too strong and the barriers too weak to prevent cheating.
Time accommodations are different from other accommodations such as testing in a different room because it is not replicable in any job after graduation. Students will not be able to get 1.5 to two times the expected time to complete work in any workplace. They can, however, receive accommodations such as a quiet work environment. Any accommodation that persists in the workforce should continue at Penn and at other universities.
Extra time to complete work causes undue hardship for the employer, which according to civil rights law, means it is not a required accommodation. Imagine you are Apple competing with Samsung and Meta to increase the market share of the world’s personal computing platforms. If your engineers take twice as long to create the same products as Samsung and Meta, your rate of improvement will be half as fast as your competition and you will go bankrupt.
A more realistic example is compensation. If two entry-level employees both earn $30/hr and one is 50% as efficient, that employee is effectively making $60/hr. This is untenable for the employer and for the disgruntled employee doing twice the work for the same pay. This constitutes undue hardship to the employer and the employee can be fired.
The universal yardstick upon which people, companies, and governments are judged is how quickly they can compound value. If life is an X-Y graph, everyone gets about 80 years on the X axis, but everyone’s slope is slightly different which means we end up at different economic heights at the end of those 80 years.
Your value to the market is how quickly you compound capital over time–there’s no accommodating your way out of this truth. If you receive two times exam time, you implicitly believe you are 50% as efficient as other students.
Many who disagree with this logic point out that life is not an academic exam. True — you are not assessed every four weeks in a one-hour sit-down exam for the rest of your life. But this is a criticism of the American education system and irrelevant to the point that I’m making. My argument is: given that time processing capabilities are an aspect of the American education system’s ranking metrics, it is unfair to allow some to not have these capabilities and still be ranked using the same metrics.
Giving students with disabilities extra time on exams may seem like it has no consequences, but that is simply not true. Many classes are graded on a curve, which means exam grades are a zero-sum game — if others do really well based on unfair time accommodations this results in my grade being lower after the curve.
Time accommodations may seem like it is creating equal opportunity. If you get distracted or have slower processing time for some reason it seems only fair right? It may give students with disabilities an equal (or more than equal) starting line in college, but this crutch will be taken from them upon starting work. Time accommodations function as an equalizer in college, and as a mitigator of students with disabilities’ success upon entering the workforce.
Employers trust Penn to educate students and to prepare them to enter the workforce. Imagine how surprised they will be when they find out that in time-sensitive situations, accommodated students function at half of the processing speeds of non-accommodated students. Accommodated students will feel slow and behind, while employers will be frustrated and more likely to fire them for their slow rate of creating value.
Some contest this line of thinking, arguing that college is not a job training program so universities do not have any responsibilities to employers.
I agree under certain circumstances. If you never plan to enter the job market and you want to continue to work in places that allow for time accommodations (only universities), then this logic holds. However, if you ever plan to work anywhere else — in the government, a for-profit company, or a non-profit organization — time is a factor in your performance.
Penn can either eliminate GPA, create a new GPA system for students who receive extra time, or eliminate time accommodations in order to level the playing field and best prepare students with disabilities for the workforce. All things considered, eliminating accommodations is the best solution.
The effects of choosing this option would likely be that students who previously received time accommodations would perform more poorly in their classes. They will have to adapt by studying harder, asking for help outside of class, and other methods of improving their results.
Penn should provide as many resources to these students as possible to help them with this transition. Helping students find careers where time-based performance is less important or teaching classes that help people perform better in time-sensitive situations are both ways to help students with disabilities be successful in the transition.
It is unacceptable for universities across the country to continue destroying our most objective metrics of success like the GPA or SAT. It is unacceptable to continue providing crutches to students with disabilities only to kick the crutch from under them when they graduate.
It is soft-ableism to tell students they are 50% as efficient as other students and it is explicit discrimination against students who do not receive benefits. Instead of giving up on students because of our differences, maybe the job of a university is to teach us how to live with them.
BRETT SEATON is a Wharton junior studying finance, real estate, and computer science from Manhattan, KS. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.