Welcome back to another installment of Urban Legend Fact or Fiction. In this series, we look into popular and prevalent urban legends; explaining their origin and checking to see just how plausible they really are. This month’s tale is the ubiquitous theory that if your college roommate dies, you get an automatic 4.0 GPA.
Years ago, there was a guy that went to my college named Joe, who had an absolutely awful day. His girlfriend dumped him. Then his work called to tell him he was fired. And to top it all off, his mom calls in hysterics saying the family dog had just passed away. Feeling like a bad country song, Joe goes back to his dorm room to sulk.
After his roommate and 2 of his friends got wind of the situation they head over to cheer him up. They suggested what any stereotypical 21-year-old college student would do; go bar hopping, get laid, and forget everything. Joe declines their offer saying he should just study instead, since flunking a mid-term would make everything much worse. After some back and forth the friends leave to go party and don’t get back to the dorm until around 3 A.M. Worried Joe may be deep into studying they quietly open the door only to be met with a horrific sight. Joe hanging by a belt in his closet.
The trio frantically starts screaming for help while his roommate cuts him down to begin CPR. Sadly, it was already too late. An RA calls 911 and the police come to investigate with the dean and other campus officials not far behind. Campus officials pull his friends aside to talk. They show some transparently fake concern but it’s all clearly a ruse to make sure the guys won’t sue. Eventually the dean tells them “you all will get a 4.0 GPA this semester to allow you time to grieve.”
This birthed the legend on campus that if your roommate kills themselves, you get an automatic 4.0 GPA.
This one tends to be told like the “you’re allowed to leave if the professor is more than 15 minutes late” rule. So there isn’t a lot of deviation but some small elements do change over time. Like sometimes the roommate is given a 3.5 or 3.0 instead. The aforementioned version where Joe’s friends also got a 4.0 is a riff on a lesser used variant, where a student dies during an exam and the whole class gets an A. Sometimes this death is even by the student’s own hand. The most common being a pencil up the nose before slamming their head onto the desk, causing brain damage resulting in death.
The roommate’s death is (almost) always via suicide. Their roommate is also normally the one to find out that they have taken their own life. The trauma of the discovery paired with the tragedy of a life cut short by one’s own hand, gives this tale an air of believability.
At this point, you may be wondering “what about students who don’t live on campus?” Some telling of this story do address that and the same rules seem to apply for an off-campus roommate or live-in family member. So if great aunt Pearl passes but lives an hour away, it is business as usual. But if you live with her and she kills herself, you get a 4.0.
This legend dates back to the mid-1970s. It most likely started out as an expression of the pressure students feel to achieve good grades. Since students being pressured for perfect grades while learning how to become an adult is nothing new. It may also be a play on the old morbid joke among professors, that Grandmothers die in proportion to exams. Implying kids lie about death to get out of doing their work.
This urban legend is a bit odd since it normally sticks to college campuses. As a result pop culture representations are lighter than we’d normally see in an older legend like this. Though there are 2 feature-length films based on it, “Dead Man on Campus” and “The Curve” aka “Dead Man’s Curve” (a common title or this legend). Oddly enough, both films were released in 1998.
Both movies center around struggling students trying to get their roommate to commit suicide so they can pass. In addition to sharing a similar premise and release year, both feature a cast of unlikable characters. Because let’s face it, trying to drive someone to suicide is a dick move.
In the early 2000s, we see another spike in the telling of this legend, just on the small screen. [Spoilers below but all examples are over 15 years old.]
- November 19, 2000, “The Simpsons” episode “Lisa The Treehugger”
After Lisa is believed to have been killed while living in a tree. Principal Skinner tells Bart he will be receiving straight A’s. (The offer is obviously rescinded once she is revealed to be alive.) This is also the only outside-of-college variant I could find. Her death, if real, wouldn’t have really been suicide. But Lisa was doing something dangerous by sleeping in a tall tree to keep a morally bankrupt developer out. The tree falling due to lightning attracted by her metal bucket can be seen as somewhat self-inflicted. Since this version is being told with children, fudging this rule makes sense.
- October 7, 2001, “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” episode “Art”
Detectives find out that a suspect received credit for passing all her college classes even though she wasn’t assigned any actual grades. The school registrar informs them that per “school policy” the student had been given a pass that semester because her roommate committed suicide.
- February 7, 2007, “CSI: NY” episode “Some Buried Bones”
Tells the story of a student who murders his roommate and tries to frame somebody else for the deed in an attempt to get an automatic 4.0. Unlike previous adaptations, the roommate isn’t trying to frame it as a suicide or hide it is a murder.
Is it Real?
Again this legend is so pervasive it’s just taken as a steadfast rule by many. I had plenty of professors joke that any “*insert relative here* died” excuse MUST come with a death certificate, and almost immediately follow it up with a joking reference to this legend. This rumor is so widespread that both Feakenomics and the Center For Suicide Prevention both needed to address it. Concluding that no, no college will give to a 4.0 because your roommate killed themselves.
The school may, under exceptional circumstances, work with students in tragic situations. But this normally consists of more excused absences than policy allows, extensions on deadlines, and make-up work/extra credit. Most colleges offer the ability to contest a grade if you have a damn good reason. I had to do this once due to a series of strange events that turned a B to an F. It takes forever and you have to prove every single little detail, but it is possible in some situations.
The best you can hope for in these circumstances is some gracious rounding on the part of your professors. But that is at their discretion and nowhere near a free A. This legend is total fiction.