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Misfire: How Colleges' rushed responses to COVID 19 impact student success:The danger in Pass/Fail




Due to the current world-wide pandemic, colleges and universities are facing multiple challenges to continually fulfilling their mission and remaining financially solvent. Students and faculty adjusted to exclusively studying online and without in-person access to campus infrastructures such as libraries, writing and tutoring centers as well as computer labs. Many students, who would otherwise have been generally successful struggling academically this spring, in addition to adjusting to the restrictions placed on everyone due to the pandemic.


In response, many institutions have begun to modify their academic policies. Most controversial among these are the rapidly growing push for undergraduate institutions to vastly expand their approval of pass/fail options; usually far beyond traditional limited number in so-called core or general education courses, by allowing classes in the student’s major to go pass/fail as well, albeit with several layers of institutional approval still in place. The support for this move grew fast and was widespread. The reasoning for such measures can be easily understood, as it is framed within the context of adjusting to the many challenges that students face due to the current crisis. However, such demands are shortsighted and will only damage students’ academic progress.


Pass/fail grades should only be given in extreme situations, on a very limited basis, after extensive academic advising and consideration. The wholesale abandonment of letter grades will not only have a detrimental impact on students as it affects inter-institutional transfer, acceptance to Graduate/ Law/ Medical School and financial aid agreements. Those who support the revised policy, state that universities and Graduate schools should accept pass/fail grades, thereby abandoning one of their key selection criteria. Such assumptions, however, negate the fact that our higher education system is vastly decentralized, stratified and ultimately celebrates individualism and achievement. Competitive institutions evaluate admissions decisions based on GPA and the “right” selection of course work. Being selective in that they attract the “best”, most talented students, is the foundation on which top tier institutions build their business model. Thus, enacting pass/fail now on a widespread basis will further accelerate existing divisions along the fault lines of academic preparedness, income and geography.


Given the variance in degree criteria and limited number and scope of agreements of what credits should be accepted for transfer, or what courses are acceptable prerequisites that have existed in the pre-pandemic system, it would be reckless to allow students now to opt for pass/fail with the vague promise of future understandings. Students will be put at risk academically, as courses are expected to be taken in sequence. Those that receive pass/fail and or complete a class with lowered requirements due to the pandemic, will be less academically prepared and will not have the required preparation for future study, transfer or career entry. This will especially affect the students whom we profess to want to help with these measures; i.e. those who are economically, culturally and academically at risk or perpetually at the margins of academic success. Students who are regularly struggling to meet minimum graduation requirements, may easily be completely blocked from ever graduating if the pass/fail courses negatively affect their overall GPA to an extent from which they cannot recover.


The adoption of pass/fail will also have a devastating effect on scholarships and financial aid, much of which is linked to academic standing. For millions of students, both governmental aid and institutional scholarships are directly tied to academic achievement. Pass/fail will negatively affect said qualifications. Even if all lenders and agencies were to agree on a current moratorium on these requirements, eventually existing rules would have to be reinstated once the emergency has abated. The logistic and administrative cost that is involved in deciding the pass/fail option, along with implementing changes in requirements, and adjusting financial aid packages, will be astronomical. In times where revenue is down by 30% and more, many institutions will be devastated financially. Those that will be hardest hit will most likely those that are already operating on very thin margins, such as rural and urban community colleges and small private liberal arts colleges. Yet these institutions often support and attract students from highly diverse economic, ethnic, and academic backgrounds by offering either a low-cost fundamental education or by providing higher learning though the added support of small institutions.


Rather than rushing into making changes that will have long term, complex consequences for institutions and students, many of them among the most vulnerable, this time of unprecedented crisis, should be seen as an opportunity to contemplate systemic institutional changes nationwide going forward.


In summary, the adoption of widespread pass/fail grade exemptions, while nominally done in the interest of student success during a world-wide crisis, will in the long term negatively affect students and institutions. Rather than rushing into making changes that will have long term, complex consequences for institutions and students, many of them among the most vulnerable, this time of unprecedented crisis, should be seen as an opportunity to contemplate systemic institutional changes nationwide going forward.

Despite warnings and lengthy on-campus debates, most colleges and universities have given in to public and student pressures. Unfortunately, this represents yet one more example of absence of informed leadership and capitulation to the anxieties of the masses. Rather than rushing into making changes that will have long term, complex consequences for institutions and students, many of them among the most vulnerable, this time of unprecedented crisis, should be seen as an opportunity to contemplate systemic institutional changes nationwide going forward.

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