Mac should mandate pass-fail

Mac should mandate pass-fail

Bergen Schmidt, Features Editor

In the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak across the U.S., colleges began shutting down. Students were told to get off campus, and within a couple of weeks, thousands were back home preparing to finish their semester online. 

Some colleges mandated that all classes for the semester be graded pass-fail in order to alleviate some of the stress that comes with being a full-time student in the middle of a pandemic. These schools include Bowdoin College, Amherst College, Duke University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, among others. The decision to move all courses to pass-fail acknowledges that students will face varying degrees of stress depending on their circumstances. This was one way that colleges could help their students.

Macalester was not among these schools. Instead, Mac told students that they could choose to take any course pass-fail — even those within their major, minor or concentration. The pass-fail deadline was also extended to the last day of classes on Monday, May 4. 

While Macalester’s response is fine — at least they altered the grading system in some capacity — all courses should be mandated pass-fail. Students are facing countless unforeseen stresses during the pandemic, and we should not be worried about grades. 

Arguably, because we have the decision to choose whether to pass-fail our classes we can choose whether to worry about our grades. Technically, this is true. But the decision of whether to pass-fail our classes prompts thinking about grades. The decision should not be placed on us to choose whether to focus on classes and grades. Macalester must recognize that we shouldn’t have to focus on our grades. I’ll go to class, I’ll do my homework and I’ll write final papers, but that should be it. School is hard enough, and no institution should be making it harder right now.

People say that grades don’t really matter — especially during a pandemic. They say whether or not our classes are pass-fail, we shouldn’t care what letter shows up on our transcript. Well, until our institutional college achievements are not summed up into a number on a 4.0 scale grades still matter. I know that college is so much more, and I know that grades shouldn’t be important, but they do.

It’s likely true that future employers or grad schools will give students a break for the spring 2020 semester — at least I hope so — and understand that we simply could not function to the same degree as semesters before or after. But we can’t be sure. 

COVID-19 is pushing this country into a recession. According to Stanford University economics professor Caroline Hoxby, during the 2008 financial crisis, more students enrolled in college, more students stayed in college and more students chose to enroll in graduate school right after completing their undergraduate degree. Graduate schools and jobs are already competitive, and will only become more competitive in a recession. Macalester does not need to promote this competitiveness by giving students the choice to go pass-fail. 

And then there is the shame and fear I feel for taking a class pass-fail. There’s that feeling that I should be able to continue on in my classes as normal — I mean that’s the only thing I have to do anyway. 

I shouldn’t take my classes pass-fail because then I will have failed at being an academic Macalester student. I shouldn’t take my classes pass-fail because then I didn’t work hard enough, or I didn’t devote enough time to engaging and studying. I shouldn’t take my classes pass-fail because I need the grade and the GPA to have post-graduate opportunities. There’s a pandemic, but shouldn’t I be able to continue working hard, stuck in my house with school as my only source of structure?

 No. I shouldn’t have to. 

Grades should not exist in a pandemic. No one should be made to feel guilty about their grades in a time where every day is a stressful, uncertain situation. No one should be unable to sleep because, on top of all of the burdens that come with living in a pandemic, they are worried about their GPA.   

Right now, pass-fail also levels expectations. Depending on students’ situations, it’s going to be easier for some to complete work and try for a letter grade than others. Some may not have a stable home to work at and others may need to contribute to their family’s financial situation. Having an institutionally-mandated pass-fail means that students’ situations don’t play nearly as big a role in their academic performance. I know that the argument could be made again that those students — the ones with more difficult circumstances — can just choose to pass-fail their classes, but that’s not the point. The point is that students should not need to make the decision right now. Macalester (and colleges across the country) should be looking out for their students, and one of the ways they can do that is through pass-fail.

Pass-fail doesn’t solve everything, and it’s certainly not a perfect solution. Some students may want to take their classes for a grade for whatever reason. They may have worked hard during the first half of the semester and want their GPA to reflect that work, need the semester to boost their GPA for post-graduate opportunities, or want the distraction from everything else going on in the world. Those reasons are valid, but making all courses pass-fail ultimately helps more students than it hurts by supporting students in the most vulnerable situations. It creates a little more space for students to focus on the parts of their lives that deserve their attention right now — family, self-care, exercise, sleep, health, safety. It is one way to make everything a little bit easier for all students.

Macalester, I call on you to mandate all courses pass-fail — to make one part of our lives easier during this incredibly scary, crazy time. It’s the least you can do.