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The Daily Tar Heel

Column: To pass/fail or not to pass/fail?

Rajee headshot

Opinion writer Rajee Ganesan poses for a portrait. Photo courtesy of Rajee Ganesan.

In light of the coronavirus pandemic, UNC announced last month it would offer emergency grading accommodations to its undergraduate students. These accommodations allow students to pass-fail courses and still count those credits towards major and minor continuation and graduation requirements. In addition, the University has also designated a 'CV' grade — similar to an incomplete grade — allowing students in difficult situations additional time to complete coursework.

These accommodations fall in line with many that are being offered at secondary institutions even outside of North Carolina. They benefit students who have been negatively impacted by the coronavirus in a multitude of ways. This includes situations where students may have inadequate internet access to attend courses, family members being affected by quarantine regulations or the coronavirus itself, or unforeseen childcare, work or family responsibilities that have come with state and nationwide closures.

However, advising offices for some graduate and medical schools have made it clear that utilizing the grading accommodations offered by the University this semester may have negative consequences in the future. Several programs have made statements that although pass/fail grades would be accepted, letter grading would be strongly preferred during the application process in the upcoming years. 

Admission to these programs is traditionally very competitive, so it is difficult to say whether or not having letter grades for this upcoming semester would be a deciding factor between applicants. However, it exacerbates the inequities native to higher education — students living under relatively privileged circumstances during this global pandemic possess the ability to focus on online coursework, while others have additional responsibilities that may not be accurately reflected within the application process.

UNC’s own undergraduate programs have made similar statements explaining their policies on accepting pass/fail grading. However, not all of them are understanding of the situations students may be facing during this time. For example, the Nursing program has explicitly stated it will not accept pass/fail grades for any of the requirements to enter the program, which has been communicated decisively throughout most science departments. This severely disadvantages students who may not have the resources to successfully transition into an online-learning environment, and disregards the reasoning for offering the grading accommodations in the first place.

Another issue that is currently being overlooked is how transfer credit will be handled between universities. Currently, certain undergraduate and graduate programs refuse to accept academic credit that was not taken under a letter grade, potentially costing students who were looking to transfer in the upcoming years in terms of tuition money and additional courses they may need to take in order to graduate. On average, transfer students already lose 40 percent of the credits they accumulate at their previous institution, forcing them to retake courses and spend longer time within the academic system. 

When academic institutions are unclear on how they will handle credits under the pass/fail grading system, they create a precarious situation for students who may be under additional stressors who could utilize and benefit from the grading accommodations provided by the University. 

It is imperative that graduate programs clearly define their stances on pass/fail grading and remain understanding of things such as difficult transitions into online learning, additional responsibilities that may have been pushed on undergraduate students and the overall anxiety and stress that comes along with a global pandemic.