With courses moved online for a significant portion of the spring semester, colleges across the country have had to decide on the fairest way to grade students in the midst of the ongoing pandemic. While some institutions, like Yale and Columbia, have opted for mandatory pass/fail policies, others, like the University of Virginia, have implemented a credit/general credit/no credit system, with the option to receive a letter grade. However, students had to choose between the credit and letter grade for each course by the last day of classes, April 28—before most final exams.
Since UVA Provost Liz Magill sent out a university-wide email announcing the policy on March 18, hundreds of students have protested against it on a variety of platforms, from Twitter to The Cavalier Daily, citing the numerous ways in which it puts certain students—particularly those of low socioeconomic status—at a disadvantage.
After reading about the challenges some students have experienced taking online classes, second-year Zaki Panjsheeri wrote an article for the Virginia Review of Politics advocating for a universal credit/no credit policy.
“There are some privileged students who can go home to a very safe living environment—like my own—who don’t have to work, are more or less safe financially, and can comfortably sit in their childhood bedroom and get a GPA boost…while there are other students who are fighting for their financial lives,” he says. It’s also important to consider “students’ mental health…lots of them are going into unstable family environments [and] abusive households.”
And on April 28, “many professors didn’t have grades updated at all,” he adds. “So you had no idea what kind of grade you were going to get.”
Second-year Tatiana Kennedy, who created a petition advocating for a universal credit/no credit policy, has many friends who are first-generation, low-income students on the pre-med track, some currently working as EMTs. Choosing between the credit and letter grade option was very stressful for them, she says, as “medical schools require you to have grades for all of your classes, if your school permits you to have [them].”
Even if a graduate school accepts courses receiving a credit versus a letter grade, “they are going to automatically assume that you did worse in those classes,” adds second-year Rachel Hightman, who identifies as a first-generation low-income student.
Third-year Summer Stewart, a first-generation and transfer student from a lower-middle class background, ultimately felt that she had no choice but to opt in to letter grades, because she intends to go to grad school, and is unable to take any more extra credits at community college.
“I definitely am jealous of other schools that are letting students make the decision after getting their final grades,” says Stewart, who has had to deal with spotty WiFi in her rural home, as well as other issues that impacted her learning experience. “I understand they are trying to put emphasis on how well you did amidst the pandemic…[but] it’s really making us all take a gamble.”
UVA is not the only school in Charlottesville that’s implemented such a policy. Piedmont Virginia Community College gave students until May 4, the last day of classes, to choose between receiving a pass/fail/incomplete or a letter grade for each of their courses. Sophomore Tyler Tinsley, who plans to transfer to a four-year university, believes the deadline was “kind of unfair,” as many students still have to take their final exams, which usually make up a significant portion of their grade.
“My worry is that if I take a P…maybe universities don’t want to see [that],”he adds. “It’s transferable, but it’s still up to the [university] whether they do or do not accept you.”
In response to student backlash, Magill released a statement April 25 explaining UVA’s rationale for the new grading policy. The university decided to have students choose their grading option before final exams because it did not want the credit option to be “understood as shorthand for receiving an undesirable grade.” However, it would include on all students’ transcripts that CR/GC/NC was the default grading option for the semester.
Before making this decision, “school deans and other academic leaders sought the input of faculty, students, and staff at the university and at peer institutions,” she added. “I heard from dozens of students advocating passionately for mandatory CR/NC, and dozens of students advocating just as passionately for their desire to have the ability to choose a grade for a course.”
But to Panjsheeri, the “dozens of students” Magill heard from do not compare to the hundreds who’ve signed Kennedy’s petition, as well as the nearly 1,400 students who’ve responded to UVA Student Council’s survey on the grading policy.
According to the survey’s preliminary data, about 50 percent of respondents preferred the current CR/GC/NC grading system with the option to receive a letter grade, while about 30 percent preferred it without any letter grades. However, 90 percent disagreed with the university’s deadline to opt in to letter grades, believing that students should have been able to see their final grades first. And 45 percent felt that the university did not adequately consult with students before making grading policy changes.
Per Magill’s latest statement, UVA will not make any more changes to its grading policy. In that case, the university has “a responsibility to collaborate with other universities, graduate programs, and medical programs,” Kennedy says. It “needs to insure that if a student decided to take [credit], it won’t impact their future.”