Coronavirus Prompts Colleges to Offer Pass-Fail Classes: What to Know

As the novel coronavirus disrupts education on a global scale, shifting courses online and prompting campuses to close, colleges in the U.S. are extending a potential lifeline to concerned students: the option to take pass or fail classes.

College officials see the pass-fail grading option as a way to allow students to focus on learning outcomes rather than a letter grade, which could ease pressure on students.

“This benefits students in this moment by providing more agency and flexibility to students within an ever-shifting set of circumstances that few people saw coming,” says Anne Harris, vice president for academic affairs and dean of Grinnell College in Iowa.

Grinnell decided in mid-March to offer pass-fail classes as the coronavirus — which causes a disease known as COVID-19 — prompted the clearing of campuses and great uncertainty in higher ed. Colleges across the country are increasingly shifting the grading system to pass-fail options, though some have held out with plans to issue letter grades despite concerns raised by students.

[Read: What to Do If Your College Closes Due to the Coronavirus.]

Eric Boynton, provost and dean of Beloit College in Wisconsin, referred to the pandemic as “a moment of uncertainty and increased anxiety” for students that prompted the school to offer pass-fail options.

“In these circumstances, students’ mental and physical health must take priority over the achievement of high letter grades,” Oliver M. O’Reilly, a mechanical engineering professor at the University of California–Berkeley and chair of UCB’s academic senate, wrote in an email.

Like many other colleges, UC–Berkeley offers a pass-fail option. It’s called passed-not passed and is now the default system for all undergraduates this term, although for a limited time they may choose to switch to a letter grade. Instructors continue to track letter grades in order to issue those marks if requested by students.

As students consider opting in to pass-fail classes at their respective colleges, here’s what they should know.

How Pass-Fail Classes Work in College

Ultimately, pass-fail classes mean there is a lower threshold for successfully completing a class with no penalty to GPA, thus relieving some academic pressures.

Forget the traditional A to F grading structure. Pass-fail classes have two outcomes: a student either passes or does not.

While the notion of pass-fail grading may be straightforward, the language around it can differ by college. “We’re finding out different schools have many different names for it,” Harris says.

Some schools use the term pass-fail, and others label such courses credit-no credit or satisfactory-unsatisfactory.

The language around pass-fail classes isn’t the only thing that varies by college. Students should also be aware that schools are rolling out pass-fail classes in different ways.

While students can opt in to pass-fail classes or choose to receive a traditional letter grade at some colleges, other schools are moving to mandatory pass-fail grading models. Students should check their college’s website for clarity on how pass-fail classes work at their school, experts say. Information on grading policies should be available on the college’s registrar page or as part of COVID-19 FAQs posted by schools.

What to Consider When Opting for Pass-Fail Classes

Despite the stress of trying to achieve high marks during the current academic turmoil, some students still want letter grades. The reason, experts say, is largely related to transcripts for graduate school applications.

“We know that some students will prefer letter grades as they apply for graduate school or for other reasons,” O’Reilly says. “Providing the option of pass/no pass or letter grades acknowledges that a one-size-fits-all approach will not work.”

[Read: What to Expect From Online Exams Required During the Coronavirus Outbreak.]

While some graduate schools are accepting pass-fail classes, others may not.

Harris says Grinnell decided to leave it up to students to choose between pass-fail and a letter grade due to grad school considerations. An opt-in policy will allow Grinnell students to decide which route to go by April 10, but that is another consideration that varies by college.

Students can opt to receive letter grades until May 6 at Beloit and UC–Berkeley, while others have pushed dates out even later. Students should check with their college for deadlines and other specifics.

Students may also have the option to choose some courses as pass-fail while receiving a letter grade for other classes. That, too, depends on an individual college’s policy.

If a student is acing one class while struggling in another, he or she may want to go pass-fail for the harder course. Harris encourages students to seek academic advising to help them decide on the best way forward.

“This is the time for conversations with academic advisers as much as possible,” Harris says.

What Pass-Fail Classes Mean for College Transcripts

College GPA can carry significant weight in determining scholarships, grad school admissions and requirements for majors and programs, which is why students should understand the policy at their college regarding how pass-fail may appear on a transcript.

“Classes that are passed with a P grade will show up on a transcript with a P grade, and classes for which a student received an NP grade won’t appear on their transcript,” O’Reilly says. Likewise, the outcome of pass-not pass classes will not affect GPA at UC–Berkeley.

Considering the unique situation students are currently in, colleges will want to put this moment in context.

“There’s going to be a notice added to transcripts about the unusual situation of this semester,” explains Yaffa Grossman, biology chair and professor at Beloit and director of the college’s Career and Community Engagement Center.

[Read: How the Coronavirus Can Disrupt Your College Financial Aid.]

Students should also know that graduate schools look at the overall application rather than individual semesters, meaning that a shaky period in a global pandemic isn’t likely to be the deciding factor for many graduate schools.

“It’s the weight of the entire transcript that is evaluated, not any one course or one semester,” Grossman says.

When it comes to making the call on choosing pass-fail or a letter grade, students should evaluate their individual situations and capabilities and determine how to best proceed.

Simply put, O’Reilly says, “students should select the grading option that suits them best.”

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