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In light of school closures and the coronavirus pandemic, Montana State University has joined other universities by implementing a voluntary pass/fail policy for spring semester. Most colleges across the country have sent students home and either terminated classes or moved them online for the remainder of the school year, leaving some students homeless or without reliable internet access. Implemented at universities to help minimize stress during this transition to remote learning, pass/fail grades can alter GPAs and negatively affect post-grad endeavours when employers look at transcripts.

Riddled with unseen consequences, pass/fail grading should not be the automatic response by universities seeking to ease the pain of remote learning.  

While pass/fail grades can slightly minimize the stress of achieving A’s amid a global pandemic, the grades do not translate into a GPA and poorly affect post-degree program acceptance. Career expert Alison Green explained, first jobs after receiving a degree base hiring decisions heavily on student GPA and grades in relevant courses. While some schools have allowed students to choose which, and if, courses receive a pass/fail grade, many schools such as Columbia, Stanford, MIT and Dartmouth are applying the policy school-wide, without input from students. 

Students at schools who have no choice but to receive a pass/fail grade have voiced concerns. Sarah Kelly, the Senior Vice President, Enrollment Management, Student Affairs and Marketing and Communications at Loyola University, said, “I heard from terrified students who were pre-health, pre-med, who were saying, ‘Oh my God, please don’t do this — I won’t get into schools.”’ To address this, MSU has taken a practical approach and will accept pass/fail grades for MSU Graduate programs in the future. 

There are also fears that students will be forced to retake and pay for courses as they work through the process of transferring schools. Pass/fail credit usually does not transfer, and National Student Clearinghouse reports that 1 in 4 college students transfer at least once while completing an undergraduate degree. Students transferring colleges lose, on average, 40% of the credits they have taken. If students are forced to receive pass/fail grades this semester, future attempts at transferring will be met with higher costs and additional semesters to make up lost credit. Before opting to receive pass/fail grades in higher-stakes courses, schools need to take time to educate the student body on the consequences such grades have in future education and employment.

However, the inability to meet with professors, messy transitions to online learning, and attempts to complete synchronous schedules on different time zones has caused students across the nation to fear low grades this semester. “Universities across the country are implementing this measure because it is the right thing to do for students and for faculty who are confronting uncertainty, the likes and scope of which none of us have ever experienced,” said MSU Provost Bob Mokwa.

Varying methods of remote teaching have caused unnecessary stress throughout university communities. “Instead of individual instructors thinking, ‘What’s the most fair, equitable way to grade in my class? We’re now seeing that at an institutional level in a way that is really unprecedented,” said Laura Gibbs, a lecturer at the University of Oklahoma. If faculty was to listen to the individual needs of classes, students would be more likely to complete assignments. Being lenient with course schedules and deadlines will allow students to tackle the last months of school with confidence and peace of mind. 

Faculty and administration should be more empathetic to the struggles students are facing amid a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic and support emotional wellbeing. Professors should be given the discretion to change class grading policies and reduce course loads without lowering quality expectations. MSU explained its professors will grade “as usual per their syllabi grading structure during the semester with an understanding that the transition to remote learning might impact each student differently.” Clearly, MSU values student success during the pandemic, and other universities should follow suit. 

Now more than ever, colleges ought to address the needs of the student body. The last thing students need is to worry about grades or med-school acceptance. This pandemic must be faced with flexibility and understanding as well as a lenient grading policy. As President Anne Kress of Northern Virginia Community College said, “Every single day we are reminded that this is a moment when we should show greater kindness and greater generosity, and if we don’t, I don’t know how we’ll be judged going forward.”

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