The Case for Universal Pass/Fail

On March 26th, Bates joined many of its peer institutions in adopting pass/fail grading for the winter semester. The College also waived many of its ordinary restrictions regarding pass/fail courses; for example, students can elect to pass/fail any of their classes, regardless of whether or not they are being taken to fulfill a requirement. This decision reflects the desires of the overwhelming majority of students (according to a poll conducted on The Bates Student Instagram) and made great bounds towards ensuring a more equitable online learning experience. However, Bates should still consider going further and adopting universal pass/fail.

Important to note is that online learning and its resulting grading system is complicated, and there is no perfect answer. In arguing the benefits of universal pass/fail, I acknowledge that this would not be an ideal scenario for everyone. Additionally, I believe that there are potential compromises to be struck, though these would need to be implemented universally. For example, Bates could permit and encourage students to add notes to their transcripts explaining their decision to pass/fail certain courses. Otherwise, all professors could adopt specific policies such as one ensuring that students cannot score below the grade that they had before being sent home from Bates. 

The fundamental problem with online learning is inconsistency. Some students have home lives that allow them to continue their study habits mostly unchanged; others do not. Some students are pursuing graduate school or other paths that are likely to be more dismissive of pass/fail grades; others are not. Some professors have adopted individual changes to their grading system or syllabus that lessen the stakes of online learning; others have not. 

These various inconsistencies create an environment where some students are more badly hit by online learning, a problem that Bates attempted to alleviate by adopting optional pass/fail. However, this measure does not go far enough because some students are still left uncomfortable electing their classes pass/fail.

The largest obstacle to students electing classes pass/fail is the fact that competitive employers and graduate schools, despite likely increasing leniency for this academic year, will still be biased towards students that keep their letter grades. As a personal example, when applying to internships and reaching out to professors about summer research a couple of months ago, several responses inquired about whether or not I had taken a specific course for my major. I am currently taking this course, and since it appears so important to employers in a potential future field, I am uncomfortable electing it pass/fail.

I imagine that many students are put in similar situations, where they feel pressure to maintain letter grades to stand out to employers or graduate schools, even as they weather all of the coronavirus consequences. This pressure is increased for underclassmen, who are forced to make decisions regarding their transcript that could have repercussions several years from now. These anxieties create an inequitable situation where some are able to freely make their classes pass/fail, whilst others feel unable to do so.

Another drawback of optional pass/fail is its impact on class dynamics. Typically, students in most classes are in the same boat: they are all driven to maintain a certain letter grade. The argument can be made that students are still given the option to pass/fail some of their courses during regular semesters. However, considering the regular restrictions Bates has on electing classes pass/fail, this decision is typically more unusual. Therefore, classes now face a misbalance, as some students continue to put their best effort in, and others stop caring about the class altogether. This side effect of optional pass/fail is unfortunately inevitable and is unfair both for students and professors. 

Bates should be proud of its efforts to date, which have attempted to relieve some of the inequities resulting from self-isolation and online learning. However, considering the arguments outlined above, more can be done; Bates should consider implementing universal pass/fail to further stand by its commitment to equity.