US students press graduate schools on pass-fail policies

Inequities understood at undergraduate levels seen lacking in graduate admissions

April 21, 2020
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Leaders from 145 US undergraduate student governments are pleading with graduate schools to fully accept pass-fail grades from applicants, urging fairness amid the virus-fuelled rise in social inequities.

The students suggest an incongruity between US colleges moving to pass-fail grading systems for the remainder of the spring semester as the coronavirus pandemic forces teaching online, while their graduate schools retain spoken or implicit preferences for letter grades.

“Schools and employers must take a compassionate approach to evaluation”, as students pushed off campus face varying conditions of family health, home life, technical resources, time zones and more, the student government leaders said.

Major university associations endorsed the concern. “‘Equal’ treatment of students’ transcripts is unlikely to result in equitable outcomes,” the American Council on Education and several other higher education groups said in a joint statement issued after the student letter.

The graduate schools themselves, however, have been less clear. Only a handful have explicitly promised to attach no negative implications to a pass-fail grade, said an organiser of the protest, William Zhou, president of the Undergraduate Council of Students at Brown University.

Without such school-specific statements promising unqualified acceptance of the pass-fail grades now being widely issued on the undergraduate level, Mr Zhou said, “many students are assuming letter grades are preferred”.

That uncertainty played out in recent days at Harvard University, where undergraduate courses were moved to a mandatory pass-fail system, but the medical school refused to accept them from any applicants. The medical school retreated under protest but kept a stated preference for letter grades. Under further protest, it then removed that explicit preference.

That drawn-out process at Harvard, Mr Zhou said, still leaves less than a dozen US graduate schools or their systems known to be openly committed to agnostic treatment of pass-fail grades from the spring semester.

In many other cases, he said, universities have posted informational statements on their websites advising graduate school applicants to “consider completing the specific classes for a letter grade”.

That’s not appropriate, the student government leaders and the university associations said, given that students working from home experience a wide range of conditions. And a few colleges, including Harvard, in recognition of those major disparities, forbid faculty to issue letter grades.

The president of the Council of Graduate Schools, Suzanne Ortega, said she also understood the concern that motivated the student protests and urged her institutions to make clear their acceptance of pass-fail grading.

Yet she assured the students that despite the lack of written clarity, US graduate schools already had been moving toward broad-based admissions criteria and will only accelerate that outlook during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Dr Ortega said that her confidence came from multiple discussions with graduate school deans in recent weeks. “Every single one has said our colleagues are treating these grades with flexibility,” she said. “We’ve been urging them to use holistic file review, as they always do.”

Mr Zhou and several other organisers of the student letter said that they were gratified by the support from the Council of Graduate Schools and the other higher education groups.

Yet individual schools still must provide written clarity, or else “students are left guessing”, said a joint response from Mr Zhou and the organisers of the student letter. “This uncertainty is not only stressful in and of itself but may also cause students to make choices that risk future opportunities or be detrimental to their health.”

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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