Higher Education Institutions Must Work Together on Pass/Fail Grading Options

Cartoon by Emma Hines

With no warning or time to prepare, life was upended for college students across the country when classes were moved online in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, roughly a month after strict social distancing requirements forced schools, restaurants and other public gathering spaces to shut down, some students are struggling to keep up with their course loads in conjunction with all of the additional stressors that come with living through a pandemic. 

Around the world, people are — or at the very least, should be — self-quarantining in their homes. For students, this means their houses have become classrooms, the library, the dining hall, the gym, etc. For some, this new environment isn’t a major deterrent from their academic success; for many, it presents inescapable obstacles. A lack of privacy, a bad home life and limited or no access to the internet are just some of the reasons why online learning can be challenging. 

On top of this, many professors have increased their course’s workload in an attempt to squeeze everything that was to be taught in the classroom into an online setting. With stressors filing from every direction, and workload piling up faster than one can think, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed as a student right now. 

This has opened up a national debate over whether or not universities should alter their grading systems, opting for pass/fail — or in some cases, automatic pass — options, rather than the traditional lettered system. 

There are a plethora of reasons as to why this has become a popular request among students. The most obvious is a large-scale inability to fully and completely focus on one’s education when a highly contagious virus is spreading rapidly across the country and, in most cases, one’s own town or city. While any semester is full of its own distractions that can keep students from performing to the best of their abilities, never before have these distractions been so prevalent, and so universally shared. 

Every student is affected by the pandemic. Whether it be worrying about a sick relative, being sick yourself, being forced to isolate due to exposure or just dealing with the general anxiety that seems inescapable at this point, COVID-19 is a widespread, glaring deterrent from focusing on your education. 

This is paired with the fact that everyone is adjusting to an entirely new learning model while working with the original deadlines of a regular semester. Many college students have never taken an online course before, and without the routine of in-person classes to remind you of deadlines, upcoming assignments and exams, it’s easier than ever to fall behind. 

With a pass/fail grading option, so much of this stress is relieved. Students can focus on making the most of this unusual way of learning without having to worry about what affect their performance will have on their GPA, or whether or not they will be able to graduate on time. Virtual lectures can be spent taking in the material instead of stressing about what this material means for their future. Most importantly, students can put the health and wellbeing of their families and themselves first, as everyone should during these trying times.  

The pass/fail grading option should not stop at just students. Professors, too, are being forced to completely alter their way of teaching so they may work from a distance. There are many different approaches to this, and while many will succeed, some inevitably will not. This shouldn’t be indicative of a professor’s ability to teach under normal circumstances, especially those that have never had to teach a course in an online environment before. Like students, professors are learning as they go, and a professor who is stellar at presenting learning material in a classroom setting may have a harder time doing so virtually. 

The pass/fail debate is not black and white, however; in fact, the gray area is quite large. As explained in an article published in the Hechinger Report, many universities do not accept “pass” grades as transfer credits. Additionally, many graduate programs are weary to offer admission to students who elected pass/fail. 

With this in mind, it is imperative that the pass/fail grading option is just that — an option. At SUNY New Paltz, the option was announced shortly after students left campus for the semester. Unlike the usual satisfactory/unsatisfactory grading option that is in effect every semester, the new pass/fail option will satisfy degree and major/minor requirements, can be elected on any or all courses and can be elected whether or not a student has declared a major. 

We commend the institution for this grading option, as it both offers support to those who may be struggling, as well as provides those succeeding in this environment with the ability to have their GPA reflect their hard work. 

Some schools did not go this route. American University, located in Washington D.C., announced on April 1 that they would be lifting restrictions surrounding pass/fail elections, but that “other requirements associated with grading, including federal aid or scholarship programs, may impact students’ ability to adjust to pass/fail,” according to The Eagle. 

This is concerning, as according to the National Center for Education Statistics, “92% of full-time, full-year Black undergraduate students” receive financial aid each year. With the virus already impacting Black communities at a disproportionate rate, it’s shameful that a university would further enforce that. 

Columbia, Stanford and Dartmouth are just three examples of universities that have elected pass/fail grading, without presenting the choice to opt for letter grades instead. 

For the sake of students everywhere, institutions must be on the same page. If a majority of universities force a pass/fail grading option on their students, then graduate and transfer programs will have to be more lenient with their admissions requirements. Likewise, if these programs choose to stick to their strict requirements, then schools may have to rethink a forced pass/fail system. 

We hope to see more schools across the country take a note from SUNY New Paltz and present students with the choice to be graded on a pass/fail basis. These are scary, stressful, confusing times for everyone, and a little compassion can go a long way.