If there is one word that can encapsulate the feeling of the present moment, it is anxiety; if there is a phrase, dreadful hysteria.
In addition to significant and painful matters being weighed by college students, such as the health of themselves and their loved ones, one of the latest waves of consternation among college students regards the grading system to be used during distance learning this semester and beyond. Students worldwide have been evicted from their campuses. Students’ grades during this period of distance learning are at the mercy of socioeconomic inequality, given that online classes demand constant and reliable access to the internet, not to mention functional hardware and software. In response to this crisis, many petitions written by students are circulating online, each demanding an alternative form of grading.
There are several models for how grading ought to be adjusted to combat the accentuation of unequal access to education caused by the COVID-19 pandemic being pushed. Despite Vassar’s faculty opting for a different grading model, one that has nonetheless garnered support from Vassar students is the Universal Pass model, in which all enrolled students would receive a grade of “pass” on their transcript. As the petition to “Implement Universal Pass at Vassar” puts it, for many students, especially underprivileged students, “completing the rigorous workload of a Vassar semester is not possible without the resources that being on campus provides.”
Others have advocated for the unlimited Non-Recorded Option (NRO) solution that faculty ratified last week. Under this system, students can opt for a Non-Recorded Option for all classes taken this semester, even for classes that would normally be ineligible for the NRO. The line of thinking goes like this: If a student doesn’t want to be negatively impacted by the inaccessibility of online classes and meetings with professors, those students can opt to not be penalized for their circumstances; however, students hoping to raise their GPAs can opt for a letter grade. Though it wouldn’t alter a GPA, an NRO can conversely be used to keep a GPA high, as well.
There is an unfortunate truth, though—in a competitive market for job and graduate school applicants, we know that anything labeled as optional isn’t really optional at all. Let’s say that two applicants with near-identical resumes apply for the same position or for the same graduate school. For the spring semester of 2020, one has grades impacting their GPA, and the other one, well, has a pass. If both applicants attended institutions that used the optional NRO policy, the student with grades is invariably going to have an advantage over the student with none. I’ll repeat myself: In the context of the dog-eat-dog world of applications, anything optional isn’t really optional at all. To make matters murkier, for me, there is no clear answer who gains the advantage between an applicant from an UP institution and one from an NRO institution with grades, though I have a hunch that admissions folk may opt for grades rather than a lack thereof.
I am sympathetic to the idea that the semester NRO policy “gives students agency in a time of uncertainty.” Plus, as somebody planning to apply to graduate schools myself, I would ostensibly benefit from such a plan, and seeking letter grades would be preferable to me given that I’m in the eastern time zone and have access to all of the physical and virtual tools needed to seamlessly continue my education.
However, the only students who would be granted any agency are those with the socioeconomic tools conducive to effective online learning; they get to dally and weigh whether or not they feel like trying in school this semester. Those at any disadvantage, technological or otherwise, are instead given a different choice: a choice between risking a damaging letter grade or accepting an NRO that risks damage to a long-term resume.
This is not to oversimplify the significance or difficulty of overhauling a grading scale for a semester. There are no easy choices, but the only incorrect choice is to allow a grading system in which some students may benefit from external factors over other students needlessly. This is in tension with the pitfall of the UP, that low-effort students can be bailed out at the expense of their higher-effort peers. That’s not to say that these aren’t problems that have plagued learning institutions already, but it is exacerbated by the present pandemic, and to opt for any option besides the Universal Pass is leaving underprivileged students behind.