Editor's note: In this column, we look ahead at how the coronavirus pandemic could affect aspects of higher ed in the long term.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) was one of the first major universities to make the call. In light of the coronavirus pandemic upheaving the end of the academic year, MIT officials told students they were doing away with letter grades this semester and switching to the university's version of a pass/fail grading system.
Over the next few days, a wave of institutions followed in temporarily expanding their pass/fail policies. They've included elite schools such as Duke and Georgetown universities and public flagships like the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
College officials say it's one way to make a chaotic semester a little easier on students, who may be dealing with sickness themselves or in their family, as well as coping with the economic fallout from the crisis. Campus-based students also didn't sign up for an online semester and may not do well with virtual classes, they note.
"This situation was not of (students') making," Robert Blouin, executive vice chancellor and provost at UNC-Chapel Hill, said in an interview with Education Dive. "We basically took a good faith effort here to try to make sure that all of our students, particularly our undergraduate students, would have a chance to be treated fairly."
Yet there isn't one way to switch to pass/fail. While some colleges have mandated every class transition, others are letting students decide if they want to forgo letter grades this semester. Generally, the classes still count toward students' credit requirements.
Although the changes are temporary, college officials agree the policies could have effects for students that extend beyond the semester, including how they stack up to their peers competing for the same jobs and whether they can apply for or get accepted to graduate school.
A weight off students' shoulders
Last week, Duke University, in North Carolina, announced it was making its version of a pass/fail grading system the default option for undergraduate classes, though students could opt into receiving a letter grade.
Gary Bennett, the university's vice provost for undergraduate education, said the pass/fail system will help students focus on adapting to remote learning. Like scores of other colleges, Duke moved its classes online for the rest of the semester to stem the spread of the coronavirus.
Confirmed cases of COVID-19, the illness the virus causes, topped 97,000 in the U.S. as of Friday afternoon, according to data tracked by Johns Hopkins University. Many states have ordered businesses to be shut down and colleges to cancel in-person classes — measures public health officials say could last weeks, if not months.
"We believe strongly that this moment is one that is just unprecedented in history," Bennett said, adding that the university wanted to "mitigate some of (students') anxieties."
However, Duke officials recognized that some students are counting on letter grades to lift their GPAs or for their applications to graduate programs. Medical schools, for example, often require applicants submit letter grades for certain classes.
Officials caution students to consider carefully what option they choose. But David Perry, a history adviser at the University of Minnesota who has advocated for all institutions to change to pass/fail policies this semester, said the onus is on graduate schools to tell students they won't penalize those who took the option during the pandemic.
Last week, the University of California, Berkeley, approved a similar policy, making its version of pass/fail the default option for students during the spring semester, though instructors must keep track of letter grades. Students will have until May to opt for letter grades instead.
The change is a "weight off of our shoulders," said Matthew Mercier, a junior economics and political science major at the university, in an interview with Education Dive. Earlier this month, he urged the university's administration to switch to a pass/fail system in a petition that garnered more than 7,600 signatures.
Some colleges, including MIT, said they will note on students' transcripts that the coronavirus significantly disrupted the semester.
MIT also told students it didn't believe the use of alternative grades would hurt their job prospects. Still, more than 600 people have signed a petition urging the university to make its policy flexible, contending that some students may have to alter their career plans or retake a semester as a result of the change.
An unprecedented semester
UNC-Chapel Hill is taking another approach. It is keeping letter grades as the default option but giving undergraduates until August to change some or all of their classes to pass/fail.
It is also giving students who don't complete their work by the end of the semester due to the pandemic three months from the end of the term to wrap up their classes.
Blouin told Education Dive that the administration's priority is to "hold our students harmless for all that has been transpiring across the country (and) across the state."
The school chose an optional policy because it didn't want to harm students who planned on applying to graduate schools or who needed to pull their grades up to keep attending the university, he explained.
However, some observers note that making the policies optional could stigmatize students who choose a pass/fail grade while favoring those who have better internet access or more familiarity with online learning.
"From a set of moral principles, I like the idea of making everything mandatory," Perry said. "It seems to me to be the most equitable process, but I understand that there are bureaucratic complexities that are just enormous."
"Am I going to be put on a stay-at-home order or locked down in the next 48 hours? But also, I have a lab report due at 3 p.m. Like, what's really going to take more cognitive capacity?"
Student, UNC-Chapel Hill
Kristen Hines, a junior chemistry and psychology major at UNC-Chapel Hill, urged the school to expand its pass/fail policy for the semester in a petition that drew more than 9,000 signatures.
Hines, who lives outside of Seattle — one of the areas in the U.S. hit hardest by the virus — said students may not learn as well online and could be balancing multiple concerns.
"Am I going to be put on a stay-at-home order or locked down in the next 48 hours?" she asked. "But also, I have a lab report due at 3 p.m. Like, what's really going to take more cognitive capacity?"
She said the university's temporary policy acknowledges students' anxiety and gives them flexibility to decide for themselves.
Other colleges have enacted similar policies. Middlebury College, in Vermont, is giving students the option to change their grades to the pass/fail system. Jeffrey Cason, the institution's provost and executive vice president, told Education Dive in an email that it was best to give students a choice.
He believes college officials will recognize this semester as one marked by significant disruption. "[E]veryone will know and understand that the nature of teaching and learning in this semester was, to say the least, unusual."