When Gabriela Rivera left her Brown University dorm last month, she didn’t have the luxury of fleeing to a vacation home, like some of her classmates.
She knew many who were able to continue their schoolwork uninterrupted, even as campuses across the country closed to deter the spread of the coronavirus. But for Rivera, the campus closures meant not only returning to her family’s home in Miami Beach, Fla.—it also meant picking up a part-time job as a translator for a paralegal office to help keep her family financially afloat. Her stepfather had been laid off from his two jobs; her mother, an essential worker at a shipping facility, had her hours slashed in half; and her uncle contracted the coronavirus. “It’s been kind of awful,” Rivera said. “Right now, school is not my biggest focus. I’m doing basically enough to get through and not get behind in terms of graduation.”
As the pandemic has forced millions of college students to finish this semester’s classes online, inequities that had been previously mitigated through campus resources are being exacerbated. Students who are privileged enough to return to a secure home life say they face far fewer obstacles to successfully completing their classes online than students feeling the burden of the pandemic in extremis. Whether it is because of unreliable Wi-Fi, sick family members, food or financial insecurities, or the time they take to homeschool younger siblings, many students fear they won’t be able to earn the same grades as they could while on campus.
To alleviate this burden, some schools, like the University of Maryland, Duke University and the University of California–Davis, have given students the option to take classes for a letter grade or a variation of pass/fail. Others, like Columbia and Yale, have removed letter grades completely by making all classes pass/fail this semester.
But students like Rivera across the country feel that circumstances caused by the pandemic should cause no students to fail. That’s why they’re pushing for their institutions to adopt a “universal pass,” which would eliminate letter grades and guarantee that every student passes the semester, regardless of academic performance.
Petitions have been created by students at more than 100 colleges across the country so far. Students at Yale were the first in the nation to petition for their university to adopt a universal pass/fail policy and acted as mentors for students at other schools trying to advocate it on their own campuses. Soon, students from other schools like Northwestern University followed suit. Faculty senates at some schools like Stanford University and Johns Hopkins University adopted the universal pass/fail policies in late March after prompting by student petitions.
Students advocating UP argue that online learning puts underprivileged students at a disadvantage, especially those taking on child care duties and other jobs, battling unreliable technology or health concerns, and attending to family crises. They also argue that online classes do not accurately measure a student’s capability to succeed, especially without the myriad on-campus resources usually available.
“I’m taking organic chemistry right now,” Rivera said. For her, the class doesn’t lend itself to online learning. “I think it’s a very tactile-visual thing that requires in-person presence.” A sophomore studying neuroscience and planning to go to medical school, Rivera said that the switch to online has been frustrating. “Even though my professors have tried to make themselves more available, nothing is the same on the screen [as] it could be face-to-face, next to a chalkboard.”
Universities like Rivera’s have rejected the UP system, arguing that students need letter grades to show improvement, to boost GPAs that may have suffered if the student struggled in their first year, and in order to qualify for graduate, medical, and law programs.
“For these students, letter grades this semester—even if only in one class—could showcase their resilience in the face of adversity, and help them secure access to future opportunities,” Rashid Zia, dean of Brown University, wrote in an e-mail to students. “The hopes and concerns that these students have shared are very real, and they speak directly to how education can transform our lives and those of our communities. For these reasons, we have decided against a ‘universal pass’ or mandatory S/NC system.”
Some programs, including Harvard Medical School, have said that they will accept a pass/fail grade from the spring 2020 semester but prefer a letter grade if students were given the option. Other schools, like the University of California San Diego School of Medicine, said they will accept pass/fail grades without prejudice.
Ahmed El Sammak, a junior at Cornell, said universities need to be more considerate toward their students’ well-being, not their GPAs. He likens UP to social distancing: People are staying inside not to protect the average American but those most vulnerable. UP is no different, he says. Campuses should protect their most vulnerable students, even if some would prefer not to opt in to UP. El Sammak and other Cornell students have been advocating UP under the name Big Red Pass, which organized students to flood faculty inboxes with e-mails and sign a petition supporting the UP policy, and rallied for those affected by the pandemic to share their stories on the movement’s Facebook page.
Cornell’s student body and assembly both overwhelmingly voted to adopt a universal pass/fail option, but in early April, the Cornell Faculty Senate voted against the resolution, putting the decision in the administrators’ hands. Days later, the university administration instead opted to extend the deadline for students to take a class for pass/fail.
Student organizers have been disappointed with the administration’s response. “The ability to have grades be your priority this semester is in [and] of itself of privilege,” El Sammak said. “I think [Cornell’s] administration forgot to weigh out the concerns of those people who are facing much more pressing issues.”
At schools where a pass/fail option has been implemented, students are still hoping to make it universal so that students don’t have to worry about whether choosing it will be beneficial or detrimental to their grades. Matthew Mercier, a junior at the University of California–Berkeley, echoed other students’ concerns, saying the only way to maintain the high academic standards Berkeley and other institutions expect of their students is to pivot to a universal pass/no pass system.
“This is more than a once-in a-lifetime event that is affecting everyone; it’s not as if students are slacking off during these times. They’re focused on so many different things,” Mercier said. “If you look at [some of] the Ivies, if you look at MIT, Northwestern, Vanderbilt, all of them have taken the universal pass/no pass, which shows that they understand that students are having a tougher time with this,” he added.
Students at some schools, like Georgetown University, have tried petitioning for a “Double A” policy, where every student would receive an A or A- in their classes. Instead, GU adopted a satisfactory/credit/no credit option for students looking to opt out of letter grades. Nicolo Ferretti, GU’s undergraduate student body president, said he and his peers are now advocating UP, arguing that no student deserves to fail during a global pandemic.
Universities “have to be empathetic right now, because everybody’s struggling, and some people are struggling a lot more than others,” Ferretti, a junior, said. “You’ve got to assume the best intentions,” he said, pointing out that this principle is part of the Jesuit value system Georgetown publicly embraces and repeatedly emphasizes. “If someone is fighting for this, if they’ve worked hard to get to Georgetown and showed commitment to learning in the past…you’ve got to assume that [student] wants this for a legitimate reason.”
Rivera, the Brown student, says this semester reflects, if anything, her ability to adapt to a new environment, not her critical thinking or intellectual skills. As a first-generation college student from a low-income Latinx household, she hopes that universities like Brown, which she said prides itself on diversity and publishes pictures of minority students on brochures and application materials, will understand the needs of its most vulnerable students during the pandemic.
“Your community is only as strong as your most vulnerable members,” Rivera said. “And if you’re not protecting your most vulnerable members, then there’s no community.”