Top 25 Nationally Ranked Universities Adopt Pass/No Pass-Style Grades for Spring 2020

To date, thirteen of the top twenty-five US News & World Report nationally ranked universities, all adopted Pass/No Pass-style grading systems for the spring term, due to the COVID-19 health crisis:

  • Princeton #1,
  • Harvard #2,
  • Columbia #3,
  • Yale #3,
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology #3,
  • University of Pennsylvania #6,
  • Stanford University #6,
  • Johns Hopkins University #10,
  • Dartmouth #12,
  • Brown #14,
  • Cornell #17,
  • UC Berkeley #22, and
  • Georgetown University #24

Although Pass/No Pass is the default system at UC Berkeley, University of Pennsylvania, Brown, Princeton and Yale, students can still “opt-in” to be awarded academic letter grades. And, at Cornell, academic grades are the default, but wider latitude is being given to students to take all Pass/No Pass courses this semester.

On April 2, Georgetown University Provost Robert M. Groves wrote in his letter to students, which was more than likely similar to letters students received at universities listed above:

After reviewing all the alternative proposals forwarded, the MCEF [Main Campus Executive Faculty] Steering Committee and the School Deans have liberalized the Pass/Fail option for Spring 2020. This protocol is the final decision on the grading policy for the Spring 2020 semester. 

The framework addresses many factors leading to this decision: ensuring the University academic calendar complies with federal regulations; taking into account the important voices we heard from students, faculty and families; rightfully recognizing the unequal hardships faced by some students after moving to an online environment; and valuing the academic performance of students in the first portion of the semester.

April 2, 2020

The dilemma how to measure the academic achievements of students now scattered around the world is not simple. Students, like those at Harvard, Georgetown or Berkeley, were two-thirds done with their academic semester when distance learning was implemented. Faculty needed to still mark students’ progress, so they don’t lose credits for an entire term. Also, given uneven internet connectivity amongst the diverse student bodies, academic letter grades may be unfair as a punishment for simply lacking access to technology and thus not able to participate in instruction for no fault of their own.

Additionally, all students are learning and faculty are teaching in a style which is unexpected, and not tested to meet the needs of an entire university simultaneously, and therefore rife with potential for errors that have costs which will be distributed unevenly amongst all students.

Furthermore, students are reeling from the discordant dismissal from their college homes and lacking access to normal university resources, like libraries, as well as their peers, professors and mentors with whom they can collaborate so they can synthesize and comprehend the material presented, in a way that isn’t as easily done for everyone via the internet. Also, in not being a part of the physical university community, instead back home, trying to receive a college education remotely, students can become disgruntled, dismayed, and even depressed, thus losing motivation, they would have otherwise had, and therefore choosing the path of least resistance.

A universal Pass/No Pass system maintains an “even playing field” for all students, even those who will seek graduate or professional school admisisons, as every student during Spring 2020 will have the same Pass/No Pass in their transcripts, as one current Stanford student shared with Creative Marbles:

If some people are getting a grad schools admissions boost from grades, [because they could opt into letter grades, instead of Pass/No Pass] I feel like it then reflects poorly on people who didn’t opt into receiving a grade for valid reasons.

First Year Stanford Student

Furthermore, Harvard Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Claudine Gay shares the sentiments about a universal Pass/No Pass policy, which at Harvard is an “Emergency Statisfactory”/”Emergency Unsatisfactory” system:

Gay wrote that she feels it is ‘important’ to adopt a universal grade policy, rather than an opt-in approach, for reasons beyond “the apparent equity concerns.”

‘As colleges and universities have begun to impose similar temporary grading policies for this semester, graduate and fellowship programs have signaled that they will accept these grades if they were instituted for all students. Their flexibility is less certain in any grading system that retains the option for a letter grade,’ she wrote.

The Harvard Crimson. March 28, 2020

However, in conversations with Creative Marbles, two different second year UC Berkeley students shared frustrations that they purposely constructed a class schedule for Spring 2020 to earn the needed grades, as well as finish the necessary pre-requistites to qualify for competitive academic majors, to which each were applying. With the Pass/No Pass scale, even though the academic departments lowered GPA requirements for applicants to the major, both students are rightfully concerned how, or if, their plans for graduation may be delayed.

For a Georgetown first year student, back in her suburban California home, separated from the urban education of living in Washington DC, she shared with CMC that she’s lacking motivation already. And, with the default of her classes to Satisfactory/Credit/No Credit, but the option to request a letter grade, she’s even less motivated to learn, which is the opposite affect that university administrators intended. Also, she’s also trying to connect with advisors and faculty over the three hour time difference to debate the merits of requesting an academic grade or not.

The current generation of university students typically worked for over seventeen years, “lived” for grades, stressed about grades, cut corners for grades, in some cases cheated to “earn” the “right” grades, to be generally high achieving 4.0+ GPA people. Now, officials at each of their universities, who at some point validated such academic “achievement” by granting students admisssions, have suddenly shifted their view and said, “Learning is most important. Your well-being is more important. So, we’re giving you the flexibility to take care of both.” The mindshift is stark and may require some time to make the adjustment.

Yet, once the “new normal” takes hold, what questions will students ask differently about their education? Will students re-evaluate the definition of a “grade” and what is measured by “grades”? Will faculty reimagine how they “grade” students, especially at the thirteen universities where the admit rate is consistently in the single-digits?

Thirteen top ranking universities, all just effectively dismissed the academic grading scale which is a part of their international renown. How will the universities’ renown and the presumed value of a degree from those institutions be affected? And, for students dismayed by the grading policy change, will they even return to campus in the fall?

Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne recognizes that the actions of university administrators now, can have lasting impacts, he states:

…it is clear that the novel coronavirus will have far-reaching consequences and leave a lasting impact on our society. In the near and medium term, Stanford will focus on supporting its community, preserving university operations as best it can and ensuring that Stanford contributes to combating COVID-19 and saving lives through research and clinical care.

‘At the same time, I don’t think it’s too soon to begin planning for the longer term, he said.

‘To that end, I am convening a Recovery Team to evaluate the impact of the crisis and to plan how we will manage the aftermath and get our campus back to a new normal. The world will be different when this is all over. And we are beginning to think through how Stanford can lead and contribute in the world that emerges after the pandemic subsides.’

Faculty Senate approves academic policy changes in response to COVID-19, Stanford News, March 26, 2020

This writer concurs that business will not be as usual at many universities once the crisis subsides, and many questions will need to be answered. And in the interim, university administrators and staff are obligated to ensure students remain motivated and committed to a quality education, as well as that all students are treated fairly during these extraordinary times.

Jill Yoshikawa Ed M, a University of California San Diego and Harvard graduate, as well as a former high school teacher, works tirelessly so clients succeed.

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About Jill Yoshikawa, Ed M, Partner of Creative Marbles Consultancy

Jill Yoshikawa, EdM, Harvard ’99, a seasoned, 25 year educator and consultant, is meticulous in helping clients navigate all aspects of the educational experience, no matter the level of complexity. She combines educational theory with experience to advise families, schools and educators. A UCSD and Harvard graduate, as well as a former high school teacher, Jill works tirelessly to help her clients succeed.
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