In an effort to mitigate students’ stress during COVID-19, schools across the nation, state and UNC Charlotte itself have switched to various versions of a pass/fail system for the spring 2020 semester.
All of these systems allow students to forego letter grades; however, there are subtle and meaningful differences in how they are implemented. Universities vary in whether they plan to replace low grades with a “fail” or with a “no credit.” And perhaps more controversially, they differ in whether these systems are universal or optional.
“I think the pass/no grade option should be universal because it levels the playing field between students who are having to work essential jobs and students who don’t have to work,” said UNC Charlotte junior Grace Nystrom.
Student coalitions like “No Fail Yale” at Yale University and “No Fail VC” at Vassar College have petitioned their respective schools to drop letter grades altogether for the spring 2020 semester, arguing that allowing a student to stress over grades during a pandemic would be unethical. Many of these groups are pushing for a “universal pass” system, known as “UP.”
“We understand that this may seem like a drastic measure for some students, but we need to understand that any non-universal plan will actively discriminate against the most marginalized students, like those who do not have internet access, who have sick relatives or who live internationally,” says the No Fail Yale petition.
UNC Charlotte is implementing an optional pass/no credit system, whereby professors report final grades and undergraduate students may request to replace A, B, C and D letter grades with a “pass” and F letter grades with a “no credit.”
“When the discussion about pass/fail grades started, we heard from students on both sides of the argument,” explained Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Joan Lorden.
“Some students wanted to be able to get the grade they felt they had earned. Some were concerned about application to graduate or professional school, a scholarship, admission to honors, or their dream job. Other students who may have been more severely impacted by the disruption of classes felt less confident and wanted an option that would allow them to progress in their programs and not damage their records. So we settled on the option of giving students their letter grades and then letting them make the choice.”
In a Facebook post, No Fail Yale attempts to demonstrate the potential inequalities that may arise from an optional pass/fail system by comparing two fictional students. “Chad” is a seemingly privileged student who opts to take his letter grades and boosts his GPA and “Sabrina” is a student who cannot perform at her usual caliber because her parents were laid off, she lives with three younger siblings and she has a sick grandmother. The group presents two scenarios for Sabrina: she opts out of letter grades and receives a “pass,” or she keeps her letter grades but finds she is unable to achieve her ideal grades while balancing stress at home.
“With either decision,” the post says, “throughout the rest of Sabrina’s life, she will always be at a comparative disadvantage to Chad.”
UNC Charlotte ostensibly has its own share of Sabrinas and Chads. In a survey administered by the Niner Times via social media, 23.7 percent of the 115 responding students say they have responsibilities as caretakers. 15 percent work more hours now while 53.5 percent have suffered a decrease in income due to COVID-19.
“As soon as online learning was mandatory, the University lost its ability to call the traditional grading system applicable,” says architecture major Aiden Brooks, who is in favor of a universal pass/no credit system.
“Nothing here applies; everyone is making it up as we go along and no one should be punished. The only thing we have that makes a lick of sense is using a pass/no credit for everyone. I know people who haven't gone to class in weeks because they don't have to and some who have had to work twice as hard to keep up with online workload."
UNC Charlotte political science and religious studies major Jordan Byers says she is wary of a mandatory system because she plans to apply to law school in the fall.
“With a mandatory system,” Byers added, “I feel the drive goes away for many students. Why would a student work hard to achieve the best possible grade if they can complete subpar work which will appear the same? It just does not make sense to punish hard working students by implementing a mandatory pass/no credit system.”
51 percent of the 115 UNC Charlotte students who responded to the Niner Times survey say they plan to utilize the pass/no credit option and 26.1 percent are unsure.
Correction: This article originally said that UNC Charlotte would replace "F" letter grades with a "fail." This is not the case; "F" grades will be replaced with a "no credit." The Niner Times regrets this error.
Note: The Niner Times survey cited in this article was not a random sample of students and is therefore most likely not representative of the UNC Charlotte student body.