Yale’s “universal pass/fail” experiment and its lasting impacts
In spring 2020, students advocated for “universal pass” as Yale suddenly transitioned to remote learning. The University initially responded by extending the Credit/D/Fail option, but it later converted to a “universal pass/fail” system.
When classes moved online in spring 2020, students rallied for a “universal pass” system to address concerns of educational inequity. Although the University opted for a one-time “universal pass/fail” system instead, COVID-19 has had a lasting impact on University academic policy.
In early March 2020, University President Peter Salovey sent an email to the student body announcing that students would return home and classes would move online until at least April 5. In addition to providing travel funding, the University announced that students could convert full-term courses to Credit/D/Fail until the last day of classes and withdraw from full-term courses until the last day of final exams.
To account for drastically different home learning conditions, a coalition of students began the #NoFailYale movement, calling on the University to implement a “universal pass” system. After several weeks of campus debate, Yale College Dean Marvin Chun announced in early April that classes would adopt a universal pass/fail grading policy for the rest of the spring semester. The policy did not extend into fall 2020 despite the continuation of online classes.
“Student movements in support of grade alternatives are powerful ways to ensure that this crisis is handled in a way that is just and ensures that students can prioritize their health and safety as opposed to having to work even harder to overcome incredibly challenging circumstances in order to succeed academically,” Sarah Pitafi ’22, an organizer for the universal pass movement, said in spring 2020. “We are in unprecedented times, and cannot continue with ‘business as usual’ — now is the time to support one another.”
Soon after Salovey’s community-wide email announcing the abrupt transition to online classes, members of the Yale community raised questions about the University’s ability to ensure equity among students who would be expected to attend virtual lectures and seminars from home.
Eileen Huang ’22 told the News that it seemed unreasonable for the University to expect students — many dealing with pandemic-related illnesses, hectic home lives and physical separation from the University — to devote the same level of attention to their academics that they had before the pandemic.
Student advocates originally endorsed a grading system in which students would receive credit for every class — including distributional requirements — and receive a “P” instead of a letter grade on their transcripts.
Opponents of this “universal pass” plan argued that student hardships might be better solved with an expanded Credit/D/Fail policy or an “opt-in” model allowing students to choose whether or not to forgo letter grades.
Dustin Nguyen ’20 wrote in a post that adopting a universal pass policy would hurt rather than help disadvantaged students. Many, he wrote, rely on scholarships and grants that require standard letter grades for continued funding. Nguyen argued that an “opt-in” policy would be more equitable, allowing students to decide based on their own circumstances.
“For us seniors, it’s our last semester,” Nguyen wrote. “Don’t take it away by forcing ALL of us out of a quality education.”
To spread awareness of the universal pass movement, students started a mass email campaign, sending a template message advocating for universal pass to hundreds of professors, teaching assistants and directors of undergraduate studies.
Initially, administrators did not respond directly, instead highlighting existing policies. Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean of Undergraduate Education Pamela Schirmeister underscored the steps the University had already taken to address concerns about online classes — particularly the extension of the Credit/D/Fail deadline to the last day of classes.
After a 2020 Yale College Council poll found that roughly 68 percent of students supported a universal pass/no-credit grading system, the YCC voted to endorse the proposal on April 2. Proponents of the universal pass system subsequently shifted their advocated policy to one allowing students to either pass or receive “no-credit.”
According to Kahlil Greene ’22, the YCC president at the time, the new universal pass/no-credit proposal was intended to make the broader universal pass policy “operationally feasible.” In this system, students who did not wish to have a class appear on their transcript — but also did not want to withdraw — could select “no-credit,” he explained.
“The no-credit is not meant to be used as an evaluative marker,” Greene wrote. A pass/fail system, on the other hand, would make it possible for students to receive a failing grade, which Greene called “contradictory” to the reasons for the movement.
Nevertheless, on April 7, 2020, Dean Chun announced that the University would adopt a universal pass/fail system for the semester.
“With majorities of faculty and students supporting the universal pass/fail policy, this decision is final,” Chun wrote in his announcement. “I will no longer consider appeals, and I will now focus on implementing the policy.”
According to professor Michael Koelle, a universal pass/fail policy would “in effect approximate” universal pass/no-credit because students could withdraw from their classes until the last day of finals.
“It’s incredibly encouraging that both the student body and Yale faculty ultimately came together in order to make an equitable decision that prioritizes tangible wellness and safety over arbitrary grades,” Pitafi wrote in an email to the News. “Thousands of students have had a momentous burden released from them, thanks to the incredible amount of work and mobilization of hundreds of students fighting for No Fail Yale.”
The following fall — though classes remained virtual as the pandemic raged on — the College reverted back to its standard grading system.
But the University decided to keep the extended Credit/D/Fail deadline that it first implemented in spring 2020. Before then, students had only until the middle of the term to activate their Credit/D/Fail option.
Now, though, students can select the Credit/D/Fail option until much later in the semester, which Dean Chun said “gives students tremendous flexibility and a lot of time to think about if classes are going the way they want.”
Still, the fight for Credit/D/Fail reform is not over; deadlines, distributional requirements and major credits remain areas of contention.
Students may convert up to two courses to Credit/D/Fail per semester.