As colleges across the globe have made the transition to remote learning, they now face a new challenge: How will students be graded? Administrators must navigate the factors of tuition, accessibility, students’ and professors’ capabilities and, of course, equity. Colleges cannot evaluate students the same way as before because when students return home, they do not have all of the same resources and limitations. Petitions for a “universal pass” or “A/A+” grading scale have circulated in some schools, while others have already made the decision to make the whole spring semester mandatory pass/fail. No matter what they choose, grading policies for spring 2020 have not satisfied everyone.
Students at schools such as Vassar College in New York state have have advocated for a “universal pass” in which all students, regardless of their performances before the pandemic, are guaranteed credit for the semester. Wellesley College students petitioned for “A/A+,” in which all students will get at least an A in all classes. Many other colleges have opted for a pass/fail grading basis, in which students will either get credit for a class or not, and there will be no lettered or numerical grade attached.
Pass/fail grading has been found to reduce stress in a study on medical students, although the students that are really stressed about this policy are those that wish to become medical students.
How colleges choose or chose to evaluate their students for spring 2020 — or the “asterisk semester” as some have been calling it — will undoubtedly have an impact on those students’ futures. Undergraduate grades may not seem like they matter so much, but for those who pursue higher education, those assessments determine which graduate programs they can attend.
Jesslyn Magner is in Boston’s Northeastern Class of ‘23, which is leaving it to students to decide whether to take individual classes pass/fail. “Everyone is pretty understanding,” she said of her professors and peers, but students such as herself on the pre-med or pre-health track are discouraged from taking classes pass/fail because graduate schools will not accept those grades.
Williams College has also instituted pass/fail grading for all classes. A first-year student says that there has been a mixed reaction from students and professors; it is difficult to stay motivated for a class when you know you don’t have to try as hard to get an A — because you can’t get an A.
Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania opted to let students decide whether they want to be evaluated on a pass/fail basis after seeing their grades at the end of the semester, according to Kayli Mediratta ‘22. Students can choose a pass/fail system if they see that they have done poorly or keep the letter grade if they have done well, leaving them at an extreme advantage compared to students from schools with more rigid grading policies.
Meanwhile, state-funded public and commuter colleges are being far less lenient. A student at Hunter College in New York City says that her professors were not understanding of her situation during the transition online, even as she was struggling to find housing and keep herself fed.
Gil Torres, a first-year student at CUNY (City University of New York) Brooklyn College, says that his school is grading students “as if nothing is happening.” He adds that his professors have been sympathetic with the transition to online schooling, but “it’s so hard to find motivation or even retain any information like I would normally in class.” Students petitioned for a pass/fail grading basis so that uncontrollable factors affecting their ability to do schoolwork would not have a lasting impact on their GPA, but the school declined.
SUNY (State University of New York) New Paltz sophomore Larkin Jainschigg says that she had not received concrete notice from her school about how she and her peers will be graded. “The SUNYs are kind of a mess right now,” she say. She is struggling to fulfill classes for her major online and says that “what really bothers me about the whole situation is the fact that some professors are incredibly insensitive to the experiences of some of their students.” Because there is no clear college-wide policy, the way students are graded depends largely on the leniency of individual professors.
Many other public colleges have stuck to their standard grading policies, while private colleges have more leeway in how they evaluate students. Hand in hand with this difference is the unavoidable truth that private colleges tend to be more expensive and are thus attended by wealthier students. The students who choose state-funded or public colleges for their “affordability” are likely the same students who are more affected by COVID-19, yet they have the least lenient grading policies.
Public and state-funded institutions have less leeway in changing their policy; most have to go through the state government, which is always a slower and more complicated process than in the private sector.
The inequity in grading for spring 2020 will have a lasting effect on students. Many graduate schools care a lot about how well students performed in undergrad. Many jobs also factor in GPA when hiring students recently out of college. If they are looking at the GPA of a student whose grades from spring 2020 did not factor in because they went to a private institution that was more lenient, that student will be at an advantage over one who went to a public or state-funded institution where the grading policy was not relaxed. Thus, the cycle of inequity continues.