This piece is part of an ongoing scope—a collection of multiple pieces from various viewpoints—addressing the discourse surrounding University President Lee Bollinger’s decision to make all courses pass/fail for the spring 2020 semester in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
On March 20, the Columbia community received an email from University President Lee Bollinger stating the administration’s decision to institute a mandatory pass/fail policy for all classes. In follow-up emails to students in Columbia College and the School of Engineering and Applied Science, Deans James Valentini and Mary Boyce explained the reasoning behind this decision as being, among other things, to protect those who will be disproportionately affected by the current crisis—students with unstable living situations, in different time zones, and with bad Internet.
Yet, we believe the mandatory pass/fail policy will end up hurting precisely the people it is trying to help. With that in mind, we urge the University to allow students to uncover their grades at their discretion.
To date, many universities that have decided to alter their grading policies in response to COVID-19 went the less prescriptive and blunt route. Middlebury College, Northwestern University, and Cornell University, among others, gave their students the option to choose how they were going to be graded. The University of Pennsylvania has announced an optional pass/fail policy, whereby students can designate as many courses as they choose as pass/fail for the semester. The University of Massachusetts Amherst has adopted a similar policy, while the University of California, Berkeley has opted for a pass/fail system, but students can choose to uncover their grades at the end of the semester.
In short, the mandatory pass/fail policy has not been widely adopted. This means that Columbia students may be worse off in the future when competing with students from universities that did not institute a mandatory pass/fail policy.
Furthermore, mandatory pass/fail grading does not only deprive students of the right to make a choice regarding their grades but also invalidates the work and grades of the first eight weeks of this semester. Some students planned more difficult semesters of 18 credits or more; others opted for lighter semesters of as little as 12 credits. This decision rewards the former on an arbitrary basis. Classes are now online, some students have left their dorms in order to protect the health of the community, and spring break has been extended—uncertain times call for high degrees of flexibility. Therefore, that same flexibility should be given to students to choose whether they will receive a letter grade in the context of this unprecedented crisis.
The current pass/fail policy will also affect some students disproportionately. Let’s take the example of Paul and Jane. Jane has struggled with mental health problems in the past and has a relatively lower GPA than Paul, who is well-off and has had no problems. This is Jane’s last semester at Columbia, and due to an improvement in her circumstances, she was earning all As before this policy was put in place. Yet she will now have a worse academic record than Paul despite taking measures to improve her standing in her remaining semester on campus. She is being punished for her past setbacks and using her last semester to counteract her past grades. How is this pass/fail policy in any way fair to her if she is compared to Paul in the future?
Additionally, there is a group of students that is disproportionately affected by a mandatory pass/fail policy: those in the School of General Studies and dual degree programs. Dual degree students, such as those in the Sciences Po or Trinity College Dublin programs, only spend two years at Columbia. This means that one semester counts for 25 percent of their overall GPA and academic profile at the University. Taking into account that the first semester is generally an adjustment period for all students, a mandatory pass/fail policy this semester would leave most students with only two good semesters on their record.
Moreover, General Studies scholarships, as well as many external scholarships, are merit-based. For students who were counting on this semester to boost their GPAs and academic profiles, a mandatory pass/fail policy puts their future chances of receiving funding at risk. This is even more important for seniors, who may have relied on this final semester. To name just one example, our friend, a current General Studies senior and first-generation low-income student who has recovered from two serious medical withdrawals, would be negatively affected by Columbia’s pass/fail policy. This policy will hinder their ability to show grade progression for law school and apply for future merit-based scholarships. While we may not know if graduate schools will be forgiving, Columbia’s decision puts its students’ futures outside of their control.
There are clear advantages to a mandatory pass/fail policy. It affects all students and sets an equal bar for the semester. It recognizes that we are living through unprecedented times during which online classes are entirely new for both professors and students. Yet, this policy goes too far in trying to help students, to the extent that it ends up hurting those it is trying to help. It is not privileged to ask that we have the choice of receiving a letter grade for this semester; privileged students are those who need their grades the least. It is a recognition that this policy will disproportionately affect low-income students who depend on merit-based aid, both now and in the future. It is a recognition that this policy will disproportionately affect non-traditional students, who spend less than four years at Columbia.
Above all, it is a recognition of each and every student’s right to choose what is best for them and showcase their abilities. We call on the University administration to reconsider its policy. As students, we want nothing more than to ensure that no one is unfairly hurt by this current situation. We implore Columbia and Barnard to consider providing students with the option to uncover their grades in the context of the pass/fail grading policy.
Aristotle Vossos is a senior at the School of General Studies studying philosophy. Katya Riabinkina is a sophomore at the School of General Studies studying economics.
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