According to the Yale College Program of Study, Credit/D/Fail is an option intended to aid academic experimentation. Despite repeated changes to the system, however, many students who take advantage of it said they are unaware of its intended purpose, uncertain about its ramifications, and unlikely to seek advice when considering it.
Yale’s reputation was in crisis 29 years ago. The problem wasn’t a labor dispute or a scandal, and the bad news wasn’t in the news — it was in college guides across America. The popular Barron’s guide to colleges had called the academic pressure at Yale “alarming,” and its conclusion was far from a solitary one. A 1975 report by Yale’s Committee on Teaching and Learning warned that Yale was gaining a “sweatshop image,” an image “not likely to appeal to imaginative, self-motivated students.”
That same report offered a solution: Credit/Fail. By offering courses that did not require letter grades, the report said, the administration could “encourage students to select a program inclusive enough to leave room for the delightful and the unexpected.”
The solution, however, created its own problems. In 1993, a new report citing students who used the option to “cloak minimal effort” recommended a change to the current system to add the possibility of receiving a D. The report said its biggest concern was the use of Credit/Fail in introductory Group IV classes. Despite that change, last year’s wide-ranging report from the Committee on Yale College Education found the problem was as widespread as ever. In light of those findings, faculty members voted last month to change the system once again, banning the use of Credit/D/Fail classes for distributional requirements altogether while allowing the option in most other cases.
Yale College Dean Peter Salovey said increasing the number of classes offering a Credit/D/Fail option is meant to enable students to broaden their curricula without risk.
“What we always hoped was for students to explore fields of study in which they don’t have much background,” Salovey said.
Yet he added that the status quo had fallen short of the ideal. Many faculty members do not offer their classes Credit/D/Fail, thus preventing students from truly being able to “explore.” And students themselves often abuse the system, using the option not to broaden their horizons, but rather as a crutch to take on more work than they could otherwise handle, Salovey said.
Attempts to direct the usage of Credit/D/Fail have not made a significant impression on many students. Though reasons for taking the option varied considerably, very few students said they had asked for advice on the decision from an advisor or residential college dean, and many said they were confused about the purpose — and even the value — of taking a class for credit.
Koby Sadan ’06 said that he did initially take advantage of the Credit/D/Fail option in order to explore. Curious about subjects he had never studied before, he decided on his own to take courses in music history and astrophysics for credit. In retrospect, though, Sadan said the choice did little to help him.
“I’m not sure it’s completely worth it by now,” he said. “It’s very hard to make myself not work. I was always thinking, ‘Why am I taking this Credit/D/Fail if I’m doing all this work?'”
Brooke Danaher ’07 said her problem was just the opposite. A molecular, biophysics and biochemistry major, Danaher said she was able to work significantly less in her Credit/D/Fail philosophy class, but that doing so felt strange and detracted from her enjoyment of the class.
“It felt a little weird purposely doing a subpar job on a paper,” she said. “It’s really tempting just to be really really slackerly.”
Only a small minority of students interviewed had asked their residential college deans or their academic advisors for insight on whether to take classes Credit/D/Fail. Several residential college deans asked to discuss the uses of Credit/D/Fail declined to comment, as did several faculty members who had been part of the Committee on Yale College Education.
Salovey said he wished students would seek advice more often.
“I think we always need to work to improve advising more generally,” he said. “If students are making this choice on their own, it points to weaknesses in our current advising system.”
Students repeatedly cited a desire to take classes without hurting their grade point averages, but few had an understanding of what the option would mean for their GPA. According to the Yale College Program of Study, certain prizes and Distinction in the Major count a mark of CR as a non-A grade, although the calculations for General Honors simply ignore such a mark. Moreover, no student interviewed had received advice about the effect of Credit/D/Fail courses on transcripts sent to graduate schools.
Generally, the option has little effect on one’s chances at acceptance, said Stanford Law School admissions officer Amy Weston.
“[Admissions] is much more interested in your GPA rather than individual classes,” Weston said. “Pass/Fail-type classes don’t factor into that, though they will show up on your transcript.”
If problems remain with the Credit/D/Fail system, the Committee on Yale College Education’s report suggested safeguards, recommending Credit/D/Fail be reviewed in three years to make sure the changes had been successful. Salovey echoed the report, saying that the option of modifying Credit/D/Fail further would remain open.
“Our grading policies should be reviewed by faculty regularly,” he said. “We will review very carefully where [the new Credit/D/Fail policy] is being used and how it’s being used.”