Augustine: Universal Pass/No Pass grading should be implemented on every campus

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Kathryn Augustine, Opinion Editor

COVID-19 has instigated violent brawls over toilet paper, failed to impede the plans of spring breakers and been wholly ignored by friend groups continuing to congregate. While the pandemic has demonstrated the selflessness of essential workers, it has also shed light on the issue of self-concern.

This self-concern has been magnified at American colleges and universities with controversies like alternate grading options for the rest of the 2020 academic year. Schools such as the University of Pennsylvania offered an opt-in option, where students can select classes before April 13 to receive a Pass/No Pass in place of traditional letter grades. Others, like Harvard University, are withholding that option, instead offering an Emergency Satisfactory/Emergency Unsatisfactory grading system.

On March 31, Northwestern sent an email announcing the adoption of its own similar Pass/No Pass policy, which has been met with both praise and outrage, anxiety and apprehension.

All of these emotions are valid. It’s understandable that students applying to medical school want letter grades to boost their GPA. Students want their hard work and effort to be reflected with an A. And much, if not all, of the Northwestern community feels an immense pressure to raise their GPA to score a certain position.

The emotions associated with these pressures have culminated in a student demand for an opt-in Pass/No Pass policy.

Proponents of an optional Pass/No Pass grading system suggest that the presence of a choice makes the system more equitable: students who feel they can raise their GPA can choose to do so, while students who feel it’s better to leave it where it is can also make that choice. The idea of an opt-in policy rests on the premise that every student has an inherent choice to achieve the highest of academic goals.

That’s precisely where the issue lies, though.

Underprivileged, marginalized students regularly face disadvantages, absent of any pandemic. They may not be able to involve themselves in as many extracurriculars because they need to work. They may be socially isolated because of race, ethnicity or any other target identity. They may stress constantly about finances — a stress other, more privileged students will never fully comprehend.

These struggles, again, have always existed, but COVID-19 hits these students even harder. The pandemic has affected numerous industries across the country, damaging jobs and livelihoods.

For example, the pandemic is bulldozing the service sector, where the jobs are primarily hourly, low-wage, low-benefit and reliant on tips. People aren’t going to restaurants, amusement parks, on extravagant vacations or to get a manicure. None of these jobs can be completed in a remote manner or in line with social distancing guidelines.

Northwestern families and students whose livelihood is dependent on the service industry — which brings in an average annual salary under $30,000 — will suffer even larger losses than white collar workers. Those losses may be in the form of lower wages, unpaid leave and, very likely, unemployment.

In fact, within the past two weeks, 10 million workers in the United States filed for unemployment benefits.

Rightfully, many colleges and universities are not expecting those same students to compete with their privileged counterparts. They’ve instituted at minimum a Pass/No Pass option.

There are many students dealing with extenuating circumstances. A student who has to take care of a sick family member. A student whose parents have just filed for unemployment. A student whose home doesn’t have Wi-Fi or a neat workspace. How can those students — in situations far out of their control and often marked by systemic oppression — feasibly achieve grades to the best of their abilities?

By contrast, a student who never has to worry about money or how they’re going to get food, a student who has high-speed Internet to access their lectures and assignments, will be able to easily make the choice to have their grades count towards their GPA under an opt-in policy. While a more privileged student is able to make the best choice for them regarding Pass/No Pass, many marginalized students face external pressures that limit their ability to truly have a choice.

While the GPAs of students in tough situations will not decrease with non-universal Pass/No Pass, these students are still at a disadvantage when their privileged peers are able to continue to raise or improve their GPAs through letter grades.

A privileged student may raise their 3.5 to a 3.7 during a quarter of remote learning, whereas an underprivileged student could be stuck with that 3.5 if their situation forced them to select Pass/No Pass.

These higher GPAs will impress employers and continue to perpetuate the devastatingly wide gap — that will likely grow substantially due to COVID-19 — between people who have the privilege to focus on their education amidst a pandemic and people who are not afforded that privilege.

Is your GPA more important than the long-term success and livelihood of low-income, marginalized and underprivileged students — your peers? That ultimately ties back to the issue of self-concern. We need to look beyond ourselves, our individual circumstances and our potential for gain if we hold privilege.

Not everyone will be motivated to eradicate that self-concern. Currently, no one is immune to COVID-19 or has access to a miracle drug, regardless of economic standing. Thus, there is no predicting how your life could be turned upside down. You, your family members or your best friend could fall ill. That’s still a distraction to your academic success, and universal Pass/No Pass could benefit you.

In a few short weeks, COVID-19 has already changed the daily life of nearly everyone in the United States. It’s changed the way we shop, the way we work and the way we achieve our academic goals. But when thinking about the consequences of the virus that affect each of us, it’s important to recognize the privilege that lies in trivial concerns. If all we have to worry about during this crisis is our GPA, we’re luckier and immensely more privileged than so many in this country and in our community.

Kathryn Augustine is a Medill sophomore. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.

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