At 9:15 p.m. on Sunday, March 29, CSA President Andrew Farias notified the student body that the Education and Curriculum Committee was considering options for changing the grading system during Spring term.
The ECC hoped to accommodate the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic using either of two proposals: “A) to relax the rules for students electing to take courses S/Cr/NC and B) to designate all courses for the term mandatory S/Cr/NC.”
The ECC and CSA offered students 16 hours to voice their thoughts, questions, and concerns about these two proposals through a Moodle forum. I admired the passion many commenters bore in defending their positions and pointing out the flaws in either proposal. As we were all worrying about our futures in this uncertain time, every student on that forum was under immense amounts of stress.
Almost immediately after the forum opened, a divide began to form between those who wanted relaxed optional S/Cr/NC and those who wanted mandatory S/Cr/NC. Some supporters of mandatory S/Cr/NC called Option A supporters “classist” and “elitist.” Some supporters of optional S/Cr/NC called Option B supporters “communist” and “anti-choice.”
I grew concerned about the assumptions being made about students’ health, academic motivations, financial stability, and partisanship. And I hope that, in voicing my support for a mandatory S/Cr/NC policy through the forum, I did not widen the ideological distance between two entrenched “sides.”
I do not want this article to further divide the student body. Instead, I’d like to take this opportunity to explain why I supported a mandatory S/Cr/NC policy even when both proposals have serious consequences.
A modified system of optional S/Cr/NC could in principle let students choose the grading system which they believe will best allow their success during the academic term.
However, I am concerned that the choice to pursue a letter grade is not realistically available to many students, while the consequences of this system apply to every student.
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected all students differently, forcing each of us to face challenges we could not anticipate during a normal term. Some students have stayed on campus, self-isolating away from home and loved ones because returning to their families is prohibited by travel sanctions or else too dangerous.
Others have returned home, but home may be an epicenter of the pandemic. Some family members are essential workers and healthcare providers working long hours in dangerous conditions, while some loved ones are out of work, adding financial stress. Any threat of food insecurity can be heightened by local shortages. With little time to change plans or consider options before leaving campus, some students have returned to abusive households.
With mounting stress and fewer outlets during self-isolation, many students are grappling with their mental health, especially when these circumstances exacerbate ongoing conditions such as depression or anxiety.
Meanwhile, some students are caring for their sick loved ones. They must treat their family members in quarantine while taking on additional responsibilities like preparing food, sanitizing the home, and looking after children and younger siblings. As COVID-19 case counts continue climbing, we can anticipate even more students becoming caregivers in the coming weeks.
When we consider the disparities among students in internet, computer, and study space access, as well as the problems that online courses pose for students’ various learning needs, it is clear that this is not a normal term at Carleton. Not every student is in a stable enough situation to allow them the same academic success they might find on campus outside of a global crisis. Not every student has faced the same changes, and not every student will have the same opportunity for their letter grade to represent their capability and understanding of the course’s subject matter.
Under an optional S/Cr/NC system, it is true that students affected by the pandemic could choose to S/Cr/NC their classes to avoid having a situation beyond their control affect their GPA. But how much of a choice do disproportionately affected students really have?
Students have two ways to reap the benefits of a high letter grade in an optional S/Cr/NC system. Ideally, the students’ circumstances would be stable enough to reasonably expect strong academic performance for the entire term. Otherwise, students must take great costs to their mental and physical health while managing the direct impacts of this outbreak on their wellbeing. As the term progresses, this continuing global crisis will force some students out of the first option and into the second.
Furthermore, the aftermath of an optional S/Cr/NC system does not affect all students equally.
Many Carls are hoping to pursue graduate school. Not every graduate school will follow the same policy in considering grades from this term, but so far, most have adopted either of two options.
Certain graduate schools have decided to adopt one policy for all applicants regardless of whether an applicant’s undergraduate institution made courses optionally or mandatorily pass/fail. Berkeley Law School will offer credit for passed spring classes and waive penalties otherwise associated with pass/fail outcomes during admissions review.
However, other graduate schools have declared that they will entertain credit or waive application review penalties for passed spring courses only if an applicant’s undergraduate institution made classes necessarily pass/fail. According to their admissions website, Harvard Medical School “will accept pass/fail grading for spring 2020 coursework provided it is the policy of the college/university to only award pass/fail grades.” Such institutions will need to compare within, rather than between, two groups of candidates: those from mandatory pass/fail undergrads, and those from undergrads which offered a letter grade.
If Carleton adopts a mandatory S/Cr/NC system, neither review policy will penalize S’s from this term on a Carl’s transcript. However, the more stringent policy will penalize students who had to choose to S/Cr/NC under an optional system.
The few Carls who raise their grades during this time of crisis would be considered favorably alongside similar students from other schools with optional pass/fail systems. However, equally capable Carls could choose to pass their classes because their circumstances do not permit academic success. Their applications to similar schools and programs could be weighted below their peers with letter grades and below students whose undergrads adopted mandatory pass/fail policies. While some Carls could gain a competitive edge in application review with a one-term boost of GPA, other Carls do not have this chance and would risk their academic standing if they must elect to S/Cr/NC to prioritize their health.
Some competitive graduate schools including medical schools also use the number of elected pass/fails on a transcript as a disqualifying criterion in their admissions process. Students from undergrads with optional pass/fail policies could therefore risk having their applications discredited if they take their courses pass/fail. Recognizing this risk, undergraduate institutions with optional pass/fail policies like Brown University have actively discouraged their pre-med students from pass/failing their classes, and particularly their STEM courses.
If Carleton adopts a modified optional S/Cr/NC system, I worry that the future prospects of many Carls will be jeopardized on the basis of their luck during a global crisis. Students may lose opportunities at the start of their careers, not because of a lack of qualifications or capability, but because they were forced into an environment in which they could not succeed as they otherwise would.
However, if the ECC were to choose a mandatory S/Cr/NC policy, we must recognize that there are still opportunities some students may lose. Some Carls have GPA-based scholarships or partake in academic programs which require letter grades for specific classes. Others rely on their GPA to maintain their DACA status.
I do not think a blanket mandatory S/Cr/NC policy is an optimal solution, either, if it robs students of the opportunity to continue their education. Instead, I hope the ECC will consider a third proposal: a mandatory S/Cr/NC policy that incorporates a petition process for students to request letter grades if their scholarships or current academic programs require them. Carleton already has petitions in place for other registration considerations like overloading. Adapting a similar system into the mandatory S/Cr/NC policy could help ensure that students can continue participating in ongoing programs supporting their education. Meanwhile, students disproportionately affected by the pandemic could care for themselves and their families with less worry, at least, that their current circumstances will impede their future careers.