Before I left Yale for spring break, I watched as my Facebook feed turned blue and red as Yalies changed their profile pictures to include the “I’m voting for Bernie” frame. Slowly, then all at once, the posts supporting Bernie were replaced with jokes, then news, then a global pandemic alert about the novel coronavirus reaching America and the rest of the world. One by one, Ivy League schools, then public universities, then public schools began closing their doors to students. Amid this chaos of uncertainty about food availability, housing and income for thousands of students suddenly uprooted from their lives, I started seeing the Yalies in my newsfeed change their profile frame to something different: “Students for UP #NoFailYale.”
The sudden influx of Facebook frame changes and Instagram story posts indicates the Yale student body’s striving for educational equality in uncertain times with variable circumstances. But this movement fails to address the educational inequality inherent in higher education and instead harms students who would prefer not to have their grades changed to a pass. A Universal Pass system is not the solution to addressing educational inequality at Yale. Forcing all students to receive the same grade does not lighten the load of inequality and hardship that first-generation low-income (FGLI) students at Yale have been facing since matriculation. Making a pass/fail grade scale should be an option during this unusual semester, but it should not be the standard, nor the only option that students are given.
In my three years at Yale, I have never been provided an equal opportunity to learn as my peers. This semester, I’m taking 5.5 credits. That’s 14 hours of class time. I work three on-campus jobs. That’s 19 hours of employment. If you include the time that I study, work and sit in class, my work totals about 60 or 70 hours each week. I wake up in the morning and do not stop until I go to bed that night.
As a low-income student, I have no choice but to work the maximum hours Yale will allow me, and I chose to take 5.5 credits because I wanted to raise my GPA. I want to raise my GPA because I tanked it first year after being thrust into a completely foreign environment with no prior preparation. I did not adjust to my Directed Studies and other first-year classes like my peers did because I had never experienced anything like Yale (and there aren’t enough positions in First-Year Scholars at Yale to ensure all FGLI students are oriented to Yale or provided with an adequate support system prior to the beginning of classes).
I don’t have as much time to study or participate in extracurriculars as my peers because of the number of hours I work each week. It is unavoidable given class-based inequality that my access to a Yale education is unequal to that of my wealthier and better-connected peers. While sending students home to varying circumstances demonstrates more clearly this inequality, a Universal Pass system in no way solves the inequality that already infects my Yale education.
Instead, the Universal Pass system would harm my education. Because I had a rough first year adjusting to Yale’s courses, expectations and culture, I have been heavily loading my subsequent semesters to try and overcome my initial setback. I have chosen to work this hard because I will not let my socioeconomic status in an inherently unequal system determine my place at Yale or in the world. I know that, because of my background and because of this institutional inequality, I must work harder to get to the place where many people started, so I ask to be given that opportunity.
Making all grades a pass denies students the opportunity to raise their GPA to rectify past mistakes. I am sure there are other students on campus like me who are trying to overcome a harsh semester, whether this is FGLI-related or not. For seniors in particular, UP would permanently disqualify many of them from opportunities with GPA minimums that would otherwise be attainable with this final semester’s grades. Do not discount half a semester’s worth of 60-hour work weeks for nothing. Do not deny students the ability to apply for scholarships and job opportunities because they are not even given the chance to work for the GPA boost that they want or desperately need.
As an FGLI student at Yale, I am exactly the demographic the UP movement claims to help. People have been blanket-claiming that this policy is the best policy (the only policy) that ensures an equal learning opportunity given that Yale students come from such vastly different living situations (in addition to vastly different time zones). As one of those people, I’m calling to make classes “Opt-in Pass.” I have not taken 5.5 credits on top of working my three student jobs to have the grades I have labored for taken from me.
I completely understand why a pass/fail system should be an option for students who are more negatively affected by campus closing, but I do not think an optional pass/fail semester would be dramatically stigmatized if students opt to take this option, especially if the University includes a note on transcripts explaining the exceptional circumstances that caused such a policy to be enacted. The coronavirus pandemic is a globally recognized crisis, and a note or even an explanation pointing to this would avoid any stigma for students worried about tanked grades given their current learning situation.
Requiring everyone to accept a universal pass grade scale is not the solution for students who desperately need the most help. UP discounts the hard work of countless students trying to make up for rocky past semesters. It has the potential to disqualify students — especially seniors — from qualifying for scholarship or internship opportunities, and it would encourage people not to work as hard if they’ll get the same grades anyway. I know that classes might be harder and more uncertain in a new online learning environment, but I do not want my grades blindly taken from me and other students similarly affected by Yale’s response to this global crisis.
LYDIA BURLESON is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .