Adopting Universal Pass/Fail Would be a Mistake

According to an email sent out to the student body around noon on April 13, the Pomona College Faculty Executive Committee is bringing forth a motion to be voted on April 15 regarding grades for this spring semester. This motion calls for “students to be graded on a Pass (P), No Record Pandemic (NRP), or Incomplete (I) basis,” essentially a universal Pass/Fail option. Such a motion excludes the ability for students to opt-into grades. The adoption of this motion would be a tremendous mistake and a grave injustice to many Pomona students. This motion must fail. For a variety of reasons, a universal pass/fail will do more damage to students than providing the option to receive grades. The faculty must consider these reasons: a cure worse than the ailment is no cure at all!

The overall goal of changing the grading policy is ostensibly to help students during this time of uncertainty and chaos. However, this motion neither represents what the students want nor does it properly serve their needs. According to 681 Pomona College students surveyed, Universal Pass/Fail was the least liked option. Presumably, this option only edges out doing nothing at all, which is what would happen if the motion fails. Only a slim majority, 50.1% approve. Grading alternatives with the ability to receive grades are universally more liked across all demographics measured. Pass/Fail with opt-in grading is preferred by first-generation students, students on financial aid, students doing work-study, students receiving Pell Grants, low-income students, and international students—all by significant margins. According to the same survey, 67.4% of students approve of a Pass/Fail with opt-in grading. Even higher percentages of students wanted a grade floor and broader grade inflation. 

One of the predominating arguments in favor of a universal pass such as the motion presented is that it protects these more vulnerable students. This goal is worthy, but the solution is very much flawed. If we listen to these students, they are telling us that they prefer to have a graded option. I believe that the faculty have the students’ best interest in mind, and that is exactly why the correct option is to vote down this motion.

In the email sent to students, the Associated Students of Pomona College (ASPC)—which lobbied for a universal A/A- grading option—admits that many may find this motion not optional, yet it still states that “[r]egardless of whether you’re disappointed or elated with this motion, we hope you at least feel represented in it. That’s what you deserve”. ASPC got one thing right; this motion is not an optimal policy, but even that is an understatement. 

This motion is quite frankly bad policy. It’s also abundantly clear that this motion does not represent the student body. In what universe can the second least liked option be considered representative of the student body? I know it’s certainly not the universe we live in. A B+ grade floor and grade inflation were the most popular policies among Pomona students, although the universal A/A- motion was defeated. The compromise after the failure to pass an A/A- policy is not then a universal pass, but rather a default pass with opt-in grading. The fact that ASPC endorsed this motion, and that the Executive Board sent this particular motion to the faculty, shows a misunderstanding of student priorities. Students are not in favor of a universal policy; they are in favor of freedom of choice. An A/A- policy would bridge these two groups, but with that not being an option anymore, it is folly to move from the most popular to the least popular option. The prudent decision is to make Pass the default and allow students the freedom to opt into a letter grade if that is what they decide is best for them. 

It is also true that this policy would disproportionately hurt seniors, the class already most impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The seniors have lost their last 2 months on campus, their senior trips, their graduation—must the faculty also strip them of their grades? The evidence shows that the spring semester senior semester is the best semester on average for students’ grades. The cut-off for Pomona College Scholars, the top 25% of the class, has been a 4.0 for the last three senior springs. A full 25%, at least, of Pomona seniors, had straight A’s their last semester. Even students without straight A’s their senior spring are almost certainly outperforming their average GPA of the last seven semesters. Taking away the senior’s ability to receive grades unjustly removes the last opportunity for most to improve their college GPA. Notwithstanding the disproportionately negative impact this motion would have on seniors, students from across the class spectrum are in favor of a grading option. Approximately 70% of respondents stated that they are relying on this semester for a GPA bump. It would be a terrible injustice and incredibly unfair to this 70 % of students to not allow them even the opportunity to accomplish that bump. 

Any opinion regarding grade policies must take into account how graduate schools will look at grades from this semester. It is true that graduate schools almost universally are not punishing students for Passes on their transcripts during this crisis. The Top 14 law schools have themselves adjusted their grading policies and have made clear that Passes will not be punished. Similarly, many medical schools, including Harvard Medical School, have also made it clear that individuals will not be punished with Passes on their transcript for this semester. But this exception does not mean that we must require that all students have “Passes” on their transcripts. For individuals that have applied in this graduate school cycle, most are probably on at least one waitlist. Having the ability to receive grades plays a massive role in helping these students give themselves the best chance to get into the school of their dreams. While Passes do not hurt, they also do not help. Many students have worked very hard, before the pandemic and during, to maintain the grades they need. For some, these grades may be vital in improving their GPAs over a crucial median. For others, a higher GPA could be the difference between attending a graduate school on a full scholarship or taking out hundreds of thousands in debt. For students in the middle to the lower classes, these scholarships are determining factors in which graduate school they will attend. Ironically, passing a universal pass/incomplete punishes these students the most if they have aspirations to attend graduate school. 

It must also be kept in mind that Pomona does not exist in a bubble. Pomona College students will be compared to other school students. All three of the other Claremont Colleges besides Pomona that announced their policies or motions, Scripps College, Pitzer College, and Harvey Mudd College, have changed their grading policies, but are allowing for a letter grade. Such policies are much preferable to the motion being put forth in front of the faculty Wednesday. If this policy passes, Pomona College students would be at a severe disadvantage. Students at these other schools, if they are in a position to do so, would be able to improve their hard statistics like GPA. Pomona students, on the other hand, would be unable too; the school would be inflicting a severe handicap on its students. Pomona College is our “alma mater,” our nurturing mother. It would not be in the nature of a nurturing mother to inflict harm on its children. It does not make any sense for Pomona to adopt a motion like this when its sister schools have gone a different way. univers

I recognize that students should in no way be disadvantaged by this ongoing pandemic. This time in our lives has been entirely upended. It is also true that some students have been disproportionately affected. Some students may be returning to an unstable household, some students may be dealing with coronavirus in their families, and still, others are international students living in time zones that make online class attendance burdensome or impossible. These students should not be punished and a Pass option must be available. Making this option the default and including notation about the COVID-19 pandemic are also great ideas. 

This notation, combined with the attitude of graduate schools, would provide an option for students who wish to take a Pass in a class without fear of retribution or fear of becoming uncompetitive. At the same time, the school must also not infringe on the freedom of choice for other students. Many of these students have also made sacrifices working towards a level of academic success. These sacrifices, and the hard work, must not be discounted, and must not be thrown away. Universal Pass/Incomplete, with no ability to opt-in, discounts this hard work. The grading policy that Pomona adopts should not infringe upon the freedom of choice of its students and risk becoming as unjust as they would have been if students were not presented with an option to pass. I urge the Pomona faculty to actually listen to what students want. We emphatically do not want a Universal Pass. We want the ability to receive grades, we want the ability to see our hard work pay off, and we want the ability to choose for ourselves the best option for us. Individual students are best suited to making the correct decisions regarding their well-being; taking this ability away, no matter how well-intentioned, can only backfire negatively. For the good of the whole student body, I call on the faculty to reject this motion and to leave the freedom of choice in the hands of the individual. For the good of all Pomona students, this motion must fail.

#pomonacollege #TopColleges #TheClaremontColleges #Coronavirus #PomonaFaculty #PomonaGrading #UniversalPassFail