The COVID-19 pandemic prompted the University to make several changes, including one that allows students to take classes Pass No Pass. The new policy is helpful, but it will create a disparity between students who are struggling at home and students who are not.
The option of Pass/Fail is beneficial to students who are facing difficulty at home in the wake of the virus and can’t provide adequate energy for school. But receiving a grade is a privilege. Students who take classes Pass/Fail might have to choose that option because a family member is struggling to get by financially or they have a loved one diagnosed with the virus. Students less affected by the virus might be comfortable receiving a letter grade and the opportunity to boost their GPA.
Officials should require all professors to grade their classes on a Pass/Fail basis to ensure students who are more impacted by the coronavirus are not disadvantaged.
Several schools have mandated Pass/Fail across the board, including Yale, Harvard and Columbia universities and Dartmouth and Wellesley colleges. Georgetown and GW’s law schools have already moved to a mandatory credit/no credit policy. These universities chose to mandate a universal policy because there are discrepancies between students struggling at home and students who are not. These schools made the right decision – students should not have the privilege of receiving a GPA boost because they can adequately learn from home. Administrators should follow the lead of other colleges – including GW’s own law school – and mandate Pass/Fail for all classes.
Students who choose to take Pass/Fail classes might do so if they expect their grade to dip below their current GPA so even receiving a pass might be interpreted as a student having received a poor grade. They might perform perfectly well in classes, but they simply do not have enough time or energy to make the most out of the class. It is not fair for students to take classes Pass/Fail because they cannot handle the work at home while their peers stand out with a letter grade.
Employers and graduate schools will be understanding of transcripts with Pass/Fail courses this semester given the current situation. But if Pass/Fail is optional, it is easier to identify which students may have earned lower grades. Students who choose to take a pass on their classes are stacked up against peers who have the resources they need to succeed in their classes from home.
Some students will be more affected by COVID-19 – they could have lost their primary source of income, had a parent laid off, not have access to the internet, are struggling with mental health, need to pick up more work, know someone with the virus or might have relied on Gelman Library for textbooks. For those students, receiving a grade might not be an option because their circumstances make it too hard. Universal Pass/Fail means students do not have to worry that they will be perceived as lesser than to employers and graduate schools.
Some students will not be happy with a mandatory Pass/Fail policy because they are earning high grades and do not want to lose them. But a mandatory policy is the most fair to students who are affected the most by coronavirus. Students who are worried that trading their A for a “pass” might hurt their chances of being accepted to graduate school should trust that admissions officers will understand the chaos that caused it. Students should also have empathy for classmates who might not get into graduate school because of the opt-in policy.
The reality is that some students are needed at home. They may need to watch younger siblings because schools are closed or help earn money because their parents are out of work. Those circumstances will understandably make it harder to earn a good mark. Allowing those students to take courses Pass/Fail was a good step, but administrators should consider how an opt-in Pass/Fail does not treat everyone equally.
The disruption caused by COVID-19 hits students with the least resources the hardest. GW should follow the example of other universities and make Pass/Fail mandatory.
Kiran Hoeffner-Shah, a junior majoring in political science and psychology, is the opinions editor.