At schools like UNC, there are thousands of students pursuing the same hyper-competitive fields like medicine, computer science and public health. But not everyone finishes with these degrees. There is a system present to make sure only a select best will be able to succeed, and it starts with weed-out classes.
What are weed-out classes?
Weed-out classes are introductory-level courses, typically in STEM, defined by an intensity and rigor that only allows the highest-performing students to progress. They are the infamous GPA tankers, unskippable pre-requisites and barriers to entry for a wide range of higher-level courses.
At UNC, weed-out academics are such a prevalent subject of anxiety that it has made it into course syllabi: the "Common Student Concerns" section of the weed-out Biology 101 (Principles of Biology) syllabus read, “Many students have been told that Biol 101 is a 'weed out' course. Of course this is not true, but why does it have this reputation?”
Regardless of whether it is true, the difficulty of classes like Biology 101 and their consequent weed-out nature raises questions on fairness and how hard these prerequisites should really be. At New York University, these conversations were recently ignited over the firing of a reputable chemistry professor. Students petitioned against his unforgiving grading and course setup for organic chemistry, which is known to be a weed-out course across higher education.
Weed-out approaches exacerbate inequities in the classroom
Weed-out courses are grueling for most students, and even more so for students with limited access to college-level learning in high school. According to a 2018 study from Florida State University, this access is a predictor for success in college courses, which puts those who come in without these opportunities at a great disadvantage.
In North Carolina, these students tend to be lower-income and students of color. For instance, EducationNC reports that non-Asian students of color have access to fewer Advanced Placement courses and are less inclined to enroll in them. Even when they do, they earn college credit at half the rate of their white and Asian counterparts.
Other means that reward transfer credit, like the state College Transfer Pathway, also have similar disparities: one study shows Black and Latinx students participate significantly less than their white peers, and those who are “economically disadvantaged” also participate at “much lower” rates than “non-economically disadvantaged students."