Our Pass/Fail System Is Failing Us All

An optional pass/fail policy exacerbates existing inequalities, and we must reevaluate it for future online quarters.

By Noah Tesfaye

As I was logging off of my 7:30 a.m. Sosc class Tuesday of fifth week, I popped on The Daily podcast for May 5, 2020. The story? About us, college students. This episode told the story of a student at Haverford College who is just weeks from graduating but was struggling immensely with finishing her thesis. She has no space in her home to study in a focused manner, and her parents’ small business is going to have to take out loans to stay afloat. As I listened to her story, I could not help but start reevaluating how we here at UChicago have handled education during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Before the spring quarter started, both The Maroon and the UChicago Secrets Facebook page were filled with comments about whether the University would switch to a universal pass/fail system for spring quarter, expand opt-in pass/fail options, or resist any policy change. There were opinions ranging all across the spectrum. Some students wanted letter grades to ensure they would be able to still be on track for graduate school, and some were concerned that a ban on quality grades would make students less motivated. On the other end, some advocated for a universal pass/fail system because it would be more equitable to students who face disadvantages working remotely and reduce stress this quarter. Eventually, UChicago announced that the College would be implementing an optional pass/fail system for this quarter. This system involves an expansion of pass/fail options, allowing Core classes and some major requirements to be taken pass/fail on an opt-in basis.

But seven weeks in, optional pass/fail is showing itself to be a completely inequitable system. In an opt-in system, students with privileges like a stable home to work from, consistent access to the internet, and the time and space in their homes for schoolwork are at a significant advantage over students that do not have these benefits. These students are effectively forced to take classes for grades to compete with their privileged peers when they know their circumstances do not lend them success in the same way as students with more resources.

In an opt-in pass/fail system, students receive a letter grade for each course, but can opt to take their classes pass/fail. For students who are pursuing graduate degrees like medicine and law, in which admission to a prestigious program depends heavily on undergraduate GPA, an opt-in pass/fail system is a no pass/fail system. If students with privilege take all their classes for quality grades and receive As, they’ll be at a significant advantage in the eyes of graduate schools, who could see students who opted into taking classes pass/fail as less motivated without receiving a full picture of a student’s hardships. It is a privilege in the time of a pandemic to be able to take a class and be confident in your abilities to do well. If you are in a safe home, a place with Wi-Fi, a place where you can study productively, you are at a disproportionate advantage in an opt-in system. A common objection is that some students were counting on this quarter as an opportunity to raise their GPAs, but a system which allows only a few privileged students that opportunity is a fundamentally inequitable one. In an opt-in system, the burden now unnecessarily falls on the disadvantaged student who must explain to employers and graduate schools why they had to take a class pass/fail, whereas this could be explained in a sentence on all transcripts in a universal system by UChicago. And with more and more graduate institutions, including Harvard Medical School, announcing that they will accept future applicants with pass/fail grades on their transcripts for spring 2020 only if the grades were distributed under a universal system, it is clear that a universal pass/fail policy this term will not harm graduate school applicants.

I will be the first to concede that I am extremely privileged in these times. I have a home where I can eat every day, have good Wi-Fi, and have space in my house where I can do work free of disruptions. Yet, even as I realize that I am not able to focus as well and be as productive given all of the good circumstances I am in, I absolutely cannot imagine how I could be a student if things were harder, had my parents lost their jobs, or had I lost a family member or friend.

Initially, when students and faculty were discussing the pass/fail system, there was an argument brought up about students no longer trying or caring about their classes if they did not have an attached letter grade. Yet, given the unprecedented circumstances, don’t the pressures of trying to process a pandemic in many ways trump this rationale? The idea of maintaining the intellectual vigor of UChicago is meaningless if students are overstressed in the challenges they face at home. Friends and peers of all backgrounds who normally were able to do well and excel academically on campus are not able to be the same students they were before, yet for many classes, the expectations remain the same. 

Many of our peer institutions have adopted universal pass/fail systems because they recognize that these times require unprecedented measures. Harvard listened to direct accounts and feedback from students, and Yale ran a complete survey of its faculty. Yet, at UChicago, administrators have not been so receptive. In an April 28 meeting with two Student Government representatives to discuss this quarter’s grading policy, Dean of Students in the College Jay Ellison said that UChicago’s decision was “purely a faculty decision” and that “students do not make decisions about how we assess them,” according to the meeting notes. Ellison also noted that there would be no survey of the complete student body because “survey assumes a majority rule, and that’s not how this works.” No one is asking the institution to let the students make this decision, but to not take into consideration or hear fully from the student body the way our peer institutions have does a disservice to the whole campus community.

So even when all of these concerns and factors were present for us to evaluate whether a universal pass/fail system was viable, what has remained through the past six weeks is one thing: the stigma around pass/fail. UChicago has continued in a pandemic to retain its position that a pass is equivalent to a C- (Ellison said this in the meeting). Students who opt to take a pass/fail assessment are seen as taking the easy route. This stigma, unfortunate even in normal times, is now plainly ridiculous: Amid a pandemic, there are things more important than an A. Taking a class pass/fail this quarter does not mean students accept a C-; it should mean they want to prioritize their well-being and cope with whatever they may be feeling and dealing with at home. So, while students have to figure out how to manage systemic and circumstantial disadvantages,  home obligations like elder and child care, and being cooped up in spaces they may physically not be able to study in, they must also risk their GPAs by taking quality grades, or face shame from the stigma of pass/fail at UChicago. They should not have to make that choice. This stigma is heightened in an optional pass/fail system, but absent in a universal one.

Is a universal pass/fail system perfect? No, not in the slightest. But does it present us with the best chance of allowing students, as well as faculty, to be able to put the well-being of their families front and center in this pandemic? I believe that the answer is yes. UChicago did not do enough to support all of its students and faculty by refusing to take substantial information from all members of the school community. We have seen how an optional pass/fail system does not work in the way it was designed. We can still institute a universal pass/fail system for this summer, and if fall quarter is held remotely, then universal pass/fail should be implemented then as well. We have a chance to make this right.

Noah Tesfaye is a first-year in the College.