By now it feels as though everything has been said on both sides of the grading policy debate. And over the past few weeks, we’ve heard some Ivies — such as Harvard, Dartmouth and Columbia — adopt various forms of the Universal Pass (UP) system, while others — such as Penn, Princeton and Brown — have chosen a different path: an opt-in pass/fail system. Today, we await Dean Chun’s official announcement on where Yale stands.
It is certainly true everyone will be proceeding through the rest of the virtual semester under wildly different circumstances — some students will need to focus their time on jobs, their families or caretaking, while others will have the luxury to prioritize school work. On the other hand, UP renders null and void all the hard work that students — many of whom are FGLI, internationals or other groups that UP intends to serve — have been putting into this semester. A student who skips lectures and contributes nothing to group problem sets would be rewarded the same as the student who takes 5.5 credits and works three on-campus jobs, who has to wake up in the morning and work nonstop until she goes to bed.
One of my closest friends received a low GPA first semester, and has worked so hard to bring it up this semester. Under UP, none of that will matter, and she will end the year with her first semester’s GPA, causing her to lose an external scholarship that helps her pay for Yale. What does that mean for her? She’s going to have to transfer because she doesn’t have a co-signer to apply for loans, and the financial aid Yale is giving her still leaves the cost of attendance too high.
We have also already seen the top medical school in the country tell us they won’t accept P’s on a transcript unless it is a universal policy. In my understanding, this opposes rather than supports the argument for UP. Think about whether Harvard is going to be more impressed by a Yale student’s P in Orgo II or a Princeton student’s A. But in another respect, this also reflects that under our current system, there remains a great deal of inequity: Yale students who are forced to opt in to the Credit/D/Fail system for a prerequisite will in some cases be unable to apply to medical school in the first place.
Whichever path we choose, there will be some groups of students that are harmed. In the face of this dilemma, I would like to propose an alternative path.
The most equitable solution is an optional “grade freeze” system, under which students can choose to be graded based on work completed up to spring break or continue to be graded through the rest of the semester (while still retaining the current Credit/D/Fail extension).
Everyone who advocates for UP claims that being on campus was the ultimate “equalizer,” and that returning home to variable circumstances is what necessitates UP. I place “equalizer” in quotations because we all know that in reality not everyone is even equal on campus, but at least in theory, relative to what we face today, we are all graded according to reasonably equal standards. Fortunately, our grades up to spring break are reflective of these equal standards. Even if courses vary in how work before and after break happens to be weighted, the grading system on its own, at least when we were back on campus, does not seek to discriminate against any particular group.
Although the public opinion of the student body is in favor of UP, many privately oppose and simply fear speaking out — even the academic accommodation survey released by the Yale College Council and the Yale Center for Teaching and Learning is analogously subject to response bias.
As far as the faculty are concerned, attitudes are mixed. Already, several teachers I have spoken to said they support a “grade freeze.” My linguistics professor has decided to set our spring break grade as a lower bound, and my first-year seminar professor — who first gave me this idea — has been advocating for Dean Chun to adopt the “grade freeze” policy since just under two weeks ago. Meanwhile, my microeconomics professor is giving us all A’s for the rest of the semester. Under a “grade freeze” system, she would have the ability to return to a more equitable grading system.
While some may fear that a grade freeze would cause students with good grades to lose motivation to do schoolwork, fear not. After all, we wouldn’t be here if we didn’t appreciate learning for the sake of expanding our knowledge. Although a few may stop trying, these are the same people who would have given up under UP as well.
And yet, you may still be thinking that the “grade freeze” system is unfair, allowing some students to keep working to bump their GPAs while others need to accept what they already have. You’d be correct. But all of the grading systems under consideration are somewhat unfair. Yale needs to adopt the solution that aims to respect as many students as possible.
At the end of the day, I take pride in being part of a community that has fought so hard in response to the inequity that this extraordinary situation has brought upon us, and where the administration and faculty are willing to engage with students in an open dialogue about UP.
I recognize that the negative consequences on disadvantaged students far outweigh the importance of a bump to other students’ GPAs. But it’s not that simple of a calculation. Not for the many students who need to maintain a certain GPA for the scholarships paying for their education or to obtain that paid summer internship. Not for the FGLI students who would rather keep the grades they have been working so hard to obtain.
So what really is the ultimate “equalizer?” I don’t know, because much of on-campus life is inherently unequal. But optional “grade freeze” makes the most of our available options. If UP is passed, I will only lament that we neglected a fairer, albeit less mainstream, alternative. If UP isn’t passed by the administration, professors can and should still decide to independently implement some sort of “grade freeze” policy — as some already have. Talk to your professors about it, email your DUS and spread the word.
SHUDIPTO WAHED is a first year in Benjamin Franklin College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .