Over the last few days, the heated debate between an optional Pass/No Pass grading system and a Universal Pass/No Credit one has raged through our university’s online community. Proponents of the Universal side say that it’s the only fair choice, and that without stripping everyone of whatever grades they might have earned this semester, no one can be protected from the inequity of distance learning.
I understand this argument—this is a tough semester for everyone. The struggles faced by students whose biggest concerns are whether their friends are available for Zoom happy hour are far less severe than those whose homes are unsafe or who don’t have the internet connection required to fully participate in courses. I just don’t think that Universal Pass/No Credit is the right tool to address these inequities.
The COVID-19 crisis is one of historic proportions, and it is true that during a semester where we’re sheltering in place, students face different and unequal challenges in pursuit of their academic success. This is the value of the Pass/No Pass system: for those able to continue to focus on academics unencumbered, it continues as planned; for those whose situation prevents it, the university has given students the opportunity to receive credit for their courses without receiving grades. No one can know or say before the semester is closed who will end up taking advantage of these options, but the disadvantages of choosing Pass/No Pass during the spring of 2020 will be significantly mitigated by the world around us.
COVID-19 and the subsequent statewide lockdowns require universities to be flexible in their handling of the current situation, and that makes the optional Pass/No Pass system a clear positive—it gives students a choice to determine their own future. A Universal Pass/No Credit system deprives students of choice; instead it makes the executive decision that no one should receive the results they expected when signing on for the semester.
On April 9, The Observer published “Opt-in is a cop-out,” an op-ed opposing the optional system, written by third-years Yoshmar Pinal-Alfaro and Jasmine Cuenca. When comparing views, Pinal-Alfaro and Cuenca picked two points, one that tried to point out the value of work we’ve already put in for the semester, and one that called on people to simply “achieve despite adversity.” Clearly, the second argument is callous, tactless and wrong. No one should be required to be measured in the letter grade standard for this environment, nor should the pop-up virtual university be graded at the standard of the traditional classroom—the university must account for the fact that for this semester, there is no normal.
We have all invested heavily in our education and the degree that comes with it. Different people derive different values from their education, but for many, grades compose a significant portion of the value of their degree, and this fact should not be dismissed. For graduating seniors, this semester might make a critical difference in graduate school or future job opportunities, regardless of socioeconomic status, and for others there was a lot of work invested into the semester that should not just be taken away.
No students expected their grades to be stripped away a few weeks before the end of the semester in response to a pandemic. We can’t control the disease that has shuttered this country and claimed thousands of lives, but we can control our response to it, and that response must be more measured than blanket programs that decimate the value of the semester. This is time that cannot be made back up, and it should be treated that way.