Grade Expectations
Hollywood Discovers an Apocryphal Legend

by Leo Reisberg
The Chronicle of Higher Education

September 11, 1998

It's one of the most persistent and morbid rumors on college campuses: If your roommate kills himself, you automatically get straight A's for the semester.

To the chagrin of college administrators, two black comedies from Hollywood are giving the "suicide rule" more notoriety this fall.

In Dead Man on Campus, released last month by Paramount Pictures, two students on the verge of flunking out try to find a suicidal third roommate and nudge him over the edge. In Dead Man's Curve, scheduled for release next month by Trimark Pictures, two students plan to murder their roommate and make it look like suicide.

In the first of the two movies, Josh and Cooper, who are freshman roommates at fictitious Daleman College, overindulge in sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll, and see their grades plummet as a result. Cursing their fate in a local bar, they strike up a conversation with an alumnus, who mentions an obscure campus policy that awards a 4.0 grade-point average to the roommate of any student who commits suicide.

"It's like a consolation prize," the alumnus says. To Cooper, the idea makes sense: "You can't be expected to study if you're grieving over a dead roommate."

In reality, similar conversations go on in dormitory lounges, campus dining halls, and off-campus taverns across the country. If you've been a student anytime in the past 20 years, chances are that you've heard some version of the rumor. (One variant applies the policy to almost any type of death.)

But the policy is like the movies: pure fiction. No campus is known to have such a rule, although some students treat the belief as if it were gospel.

"I heard it my freshman year, and I believed it," says Shannon O'Neill, a senior at Marquette University. "I remember we were all sitting around the dorm, talking about grades and roommate problems. And since the movie came out, we've all brought it up. I know we all believed it at some point." College administrators on various campuses have tried to debunk the belief, but, like other myths, it has displayed considerable staying power, especially in the wake of actual deaths.

When a Marquette sophomore died in a rooming-house fire in 1989, the Milwaukee Journal reported that a rumor had spread through the campus that a 4.0 G.P.A. would be awarded to the roommates. Marquette officials issued an emphatic denial.

When Matthew Garofalo, a freshman at the University of Iowa, died from alcohol poisoning after a fraternity party in 1995, students wondered whether his roommate at the fraternity house would get a 4.0, says Phillip E. Jones, Iowa's vice-president for student services. "There was a good deal of substantive conversation about nonsensical issues: Does it apply since he died in a fraternity house and wasn't in the residence halls? If his roommate were away for the weekend, would it count?"

While the myth may seem absurd, it may be based on an element of truth, Mr. Jones says. Colleges will do special things to help grieving students cope psychologically and academically.

For example, according to Iowa's response policy for "psychological emergencies," students who lived with the victim are encouraged to take advantage of counseling services provided by the university. A committee that hears academic appeals may allow a student to withdraw from classes without penalty "if there are clear signs of trauma, such as sleeplessness or missed classes, and if it's documented through psychological records or even a compelling statement," Mr. Jones says.

Iowa has never faced a request for straight A's following a tragedy, he adds. But Alfred University has.

When a student hanged himself in his on-campus suite last spring, the mother of one of his five roommates called Alfred's president, dean, and provost to demand that her son be given a 4.0, says W. Richard Ott, the provost. He says he was caught off-guard but gently explained to her that the university had no policy of giving good grades for grief.

Mr. Ott hadn't heard of the belief before the call. "It smacked of someone trying to gain an advantage from the death of another person, and I didn't like that."

Those among the roommates who were not emotionally prepared to take tests or finish papers by the end of the semester were permitted to make up the missed work during the summer. All of the roommates also got to move to different rooms.

Jan Harold Brunvand, a retired English professor at the University of Utah who is an expert on folklore, debunked the "suicide rule" in a 1989 book about urban legends, Curses! Broiled Again!

He began with a letter he said he had received from a sophomore at Southern Methodist University. "Everyone in my dormitory repeated this story, and almost everyone took it as fact," the student wrote. "Many of my friends here said, 'If you don't believe me, look it up! It's right there in our student handbook.' I read the entire book backwards and forwards and could not find it. Then my friends said it was a state law."

Mr. Brunvand found that the rumor was in circulation at many colleges. "If there's a college campus in the country that does not have a 'suicide rule' legend, I've yet to discover it," he wrote. "And if there's one that does have such a rule on the books, I haven't found it yet either."

William Fox, a sociology professor at Skidmore College, learned just how popular the myth was when he conducted a survey of students at Skidmore and on the State University of New York's campus at New Paltz in the mid-1980s. About half of the 82 students surveyed at Skidmore believed that their college had such a policy, and four out of five thought that at least some other colleges did. At New Paltz, about 125 of the 150 students surveyed believed that it was true there, and all but 15 thought it was true at other colleges.

Since then, Mr. Fox has heard several variations on the "suicide rule" from his own students, who "tell me these things with a straight face," he says.

At some colleges, belief has it that a student gets the 4.0 if his or her roommate dies for any reason, including accidental death, illness, or murder (unless, of course, the surviving roommate turns out to be the killer). In another version, two roommates must share the compensation for their grief; instead of a 4.0, they'd each get a 3.5. Yet another variation gives the surviving roommate first pick in the next housing lottery.

"These kinds of stories reflect the students' perceptions of the world," Mr. Fox says. "Students see things such as grades as absolutely arbitrary."

In an anthology of folklore papers in 1990, he wrote that the rumor seemed to be fairly new. Although it had already been widely disseminated among students by then, only the youngest administrators and faculty members could recall talk of a "suicide rule" from their own college days. Mr. Fox speculates that the rumor emerged in the mid-1970s, because it portrays college administrators as "caring, concerned, benevolent." It's doubtful that students who attended college during times of unrest, such as the late '60s, would have painted administrators in such a favorable light, he says.

Some administrators can't help laughing at the concept of the "dead-man's clause" and the movies that exploit it. "It's an invitation to murder," jokes Robert J. Gross, dean of Swarthmore College. "Higher education is ripe for satire, and I think a little satire is a good thing. We sometimes take ourselves a little too seriously."

But at institutions where students have been lost to suicide in recent years, the new attention to the legend isn't generating many chuckles. At Cornell University, for example, at least five students have killed themselves since 1990 by leaping into one of the two steep, rocky gorges that run through the campus, according to reports from newspapers and campus officials. Nationally, one in 7,500 to 10,000 college students commits suicide each year, according to researchers.

Cornell offers counseling to grieving students, and provides them with flexibility in finishing course work. Giving away good grades won't help a student deal with the emotional toll of a suicide, says John L. Ford, dean of students.

"I don't see grades as medicine or therapy," he says.

Amy VanBlarcom, a Cornell senior who leads campus tours for prospective students, says she does her best to dispel the myth of the "suicide rule" whenever someone asks about it -- and someone inevitably does.

"We always get asked about suicide, because people think we have a high suicide rate," she says. "Then some student always seems to come up to me afterward and asks whether it's true they'd get good grades if their roommate commits suicide."

With questions like that, it's no wonder some college administrators fear that life may imitate art. Will some unprincipled students be tempted to take what they think is a short route to good grades, as the characters do in the new movies?

"I hope we never have to deal with that," says James E. Caswell, vice-president for student affairs at Southern Methodist University. "But we've been surprised before, haven't we?"

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