University-wide Pass/No Pass policy sparks campus debate

April 2, 2020

On Tuesday, Northwestern announced a universal Pass/No Pass grading system for undergraduates this Spring Quarter, causing debate amongst students — some praised it as the most equitable decision while others believe it should be optional.

As students face new challenges due to remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, many top schools across the country, including Harvard, Stanford and Columbia, have implemented some variation of a university-wide Pass/Fail policy. But other institutions, including Yale, University of Pennsylvania and Princeton, made Pass/Fail optional. The University of Chicago has yet to make any changes to its grading system, and students there are “sharply divided,” the Chicago Maroon reported.

The decision at Northwestern was made by administrators to provide “equity and compassion” to those most impacted by the spread of the novel coronavirus, the email said. It came after a student #NoFailNU petition — which called for a “Universal Pass” policy — garnered over 300 signatures. Weinberg and SESP senior Christopher Mayorga said they started the petition after seeing similar activism from students at other institutions like Yale and Brown.

“These are unprecedented circumstances,” Mayorga said. “Students shouldn’t be penalized.”

A screenshot of the petition to make the University adopt a Universal Pass system for Spring Quarter. The petition has garnered over 300 signatures.

Mayorga originally sought a “Universal Pass” grade for all students. They said low-income students in particular are impacted by the move to online classes, adding that some students may have to work extra hours and take care of family members while at home during the COVID-19 pandemic.

After publishing the petition last Wednesday, Mayorga and SESP junior Soteria Reid met on Friday morning with Provost Jonathan Holloway, University Registrar Jacqualyn Casazza, and Associate Provost for Undergraduate Education Miriam Sherin over Zoom.

Going forward, Mayorga wants more opportunities for students to be involved in the decision-making process and a more direct line of communication. They are continuing to hold conversations with Sherin, who works most closely with undergraduate students.

“We didn’t get the full ‘No Fail’ as a policy, but we’re hoping to get it as a practice,” Mayorga said.

At Yale University, nearly 70 percent of the 4,500 students polled by the Yale College Council supported a mandatory “No Fail” option, but Yale’s Pass/Fail option remains optional for students.

At Northwestern, students were quick to debate the “mandatory” provision in the grading policy.

Opt-In vs. Universal Standard

Students supporting the universal aspect of the Pass/No Pass policy cited disparities in access to internet, computers, and distraction-free study locations while remaining at home — disparities that could create an uneven playing field.

Weinberg and SESP sophomore Daniel Rodriguez told The Daily he believes an opt-in system would predominantly benefit privileged students, who would be more likely to pursue traditional letter grades. Rodriguez added that he thinks the school should simply give everyone a 4.0 for their courses this quarter, similar to the #NoFailNU proposal.

“Nobody should be worried about grades or jobs right now,” Rodriguez said. “We need a special system for special circumstances.”

Other students disagreed. On Wednesday, Weinberg and Communication sophomore Miranda Swartz started a new petition calling for the University to make the grading policy optional. As of Thursday evening, the petition had over 600 signatures.

Screenshot of a petition to make Northwestern’s Pass/No Pass grading policy optional. As of Thursday evening, the petition has garnered over 600 signatures.

“Many students have aspirations of pursuing advanced degrees, where undergraduate coursework and GPA are incredibly important application materials,” the petition reads.

Swartz told The Daily she felt frustrated after receiving the University email on Tuesday. After changing majors this year, Swartz said she was hoping to bring up her GPA by finally being in classes she enjoyed. The sophomore said she ultimately decided to draft the petition after talking with friends who felt similarly frustrated.

The petition received 100 signatures in less than an hour, but also drew quick criticism in the Class of 2022 Facebook group after Swartz shared it in a post that garnered 74 comments as of Thursday evening.

Weinberg sophomore Sam Burton-King commented on the post, writing, “Making the pass/no pass optional reintroduces competition, which would give rich and privileged students an unfair advantage.”

Burton-King told The Daily he expects disparities to “skyrocket” during this pandemic because students don’t have access to the same essential resources they get on campus. While he was also hoping to improve his GPA this quarter, Burton-King said he now supports the universal Pass/No Pass policy.

Burton-King’s comment echoed the original #NoFailNU petition’s sentiment. “Any non-universal plan will actively discriminate against the most marginalized students,” it read.

Swartz closed the petition late Thursday evening, writing in an update that while the petition has helped prompt a useful dialogue, she is still hoping for an option that will better address the needs of all Northwestern students. 

GPA Concerns

Under the Pass/No Pass system, a passing grade is designated as a D or higher, per current Northwestern policy. These grades will not count toward students’ GPAs, and individual schools will share how this decision impacts degree requirements, the policy announcement said. Under the previous grading policy, students could only earn Pass/No Pass credit for general education classes and unrestricted electives.

Several seniors told The Daily that they intentionally enrolled in easier spring courses as a final effort to bring up their GPA for postgraduate programs. With the University’s announcement coming less than a week before classes begin, these students say they have a limited window to make course changes. That poses a particular concern for those applying to postgraduate programs like medical school.

Additionally, some scholarships and visas require students to maintain certain GPA benchmarks.

Hope for understanding

University administrators have previously stated that all students will have a note on their transcripts explaining the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the 2020 Winter and Spring Quarters. Undergraduates will also be given the option to retroactively change their winter term grade to Pass/No Pass until the end of May.

Other students told The Daily they expect postgraduate programs to be more understanding of “Pass” notes on transcripts.

An email obtained by The Daily from the Office of the Provost says Northwestern’s graduate and professional schools would look favorably on Pass grades only if the policy was mandatory. The email added that the University “cannot reevaluate” the universal Pass/No Pass grading policy at this time.

Still, students like Swartz hope their concerns are addressed.

“There isn’t a solution where everyone’s going to be happy,” Swartz said. “Just knowing that I had my opinion heard is really valuable.”