Opt-In Letter Grade Policy Exposes Huge Inequalities

I still remember the morning I found out I’d been accepted into Pomona College. The virtual confetti raining down my laptop screen will forever hold a place in my mind as one of my life’s high points. What accompanied this confetti was an offer by Pomona to give me a world-class education and an experience of a completely different country. As a low-income, first generation international student I was overjoyed. Fast forward to now, as I approach (virtual) graduation, my state of mind couldn’t be more different.

During my time at Pomona, while it has always been clear that there are huge wealth divides, my college has done its best to give students like me equal opportunities to succeed, through paying for essentials like travel expenses, food and accommodation, and providing the use of on-campus facilities such as desktop computers and study areas. However, during the COVID-19 pandemic, as almost all Pomona students have been sent home, the somewhat level playing field has almost completely been turned on its side. For some, it is now much harder—or even impossible—to complete assignments and at the quality they would under normal circumstances.

The current debate over Pomona’s grading policy is roughly split between students who want optional letter grades, and those who want equitable grading policies, such as Universal Pass or Universal A grades. Those in the former category argue that they need letter grades because it would look better on their transcript. Maybe it would, but those people are also likely in the position to get good grades. Those in the latter category, such as myself, acknowledge the exacerbation of inequalities caused by the pandemic and most students being consequently sent home. 

If I didn’t live eight time zones away from Pomona, had an adequate internet connection, wasn’t completely distraught about missing my last 2 months of college, and had access to all the resources that other students had, I would probably benefit from a letter grade policy too. While many such students leap at this policy, they forget many of their peers who, by having to opt for a Pass or take a lower grade than they could have achieved under normal circumstances, will be left with a stain on their resumes in comparison. 

One argument I hear from students in favor of letter grades is that they were relying on As to show to graduate schools to get off a waiting list, or things of that nature. To those people, I ask you to consider the situation of someone else who was also relying on a boost to achieve a certain goal, but (exceptional) circumstances have made it impossible for them to get the results they could have had the pandemic not occurred. It’s plain to see that wealthy domestic students with a good home life who are mentally unfazed by the pandemic will get better grades—this system is not meritocratic. 

The main aim of grading is to represent individual merit through talent and hard work. Sadly, the pandemic has rendered this aim unobtainable for this semester. Letter grades would not reflect this merit, though neither would Universal Pass. Everyone has, or has had, seven other semesters to exhibit their talent and allow their work ethic to come to fruition. Eight semesters would have been ideal, but the fact that I’m writing this sentence in a tiny room under lockdown on the other side of the world demonstrates this impossibility.

As I and many other seniors are left with the crushing news of cancelled graduations, the inability to say final goodbyes to our college friends, and a prospective economic depression that seems likely to worsen the already bleak job market, the last thing we need is unfair grading for our final semester. 

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