Against a universal satisfactory/no-credit spring quarter

By and

As Stanford prepares for the beginning of a virtual spring quarter, there have been discussion across the U.S. about changing the spring quarter grading scheme to Credit/No Credit (CR/NC) for at either an opt-in or universal level. Several other universities, including Columbia, Dartmouth and MIT, have chosen to opt for similar Pass/Fail semesters or quarters. Most recently, the ASSU sent an executive update informing students that similar measures will be taken under consideration by the Faculty Senate on Thursday. 

Three measures will be considered by the Senate: First is “Universal S/NC,” which changes the grading basis for all spring courses to Satisfactory/No Credit (where ‘Satisfactory” is equivalent to a C- or higher). Second is “Optional C/NC,” which allows students to take courses under the Credit/No Credit grading basis (where “Credit” is equivalent to a D or higher) and count these courses toward major and distribution requirements, but would not make this grading basis mandatory. Third is a “Universal A/NC,” where all students receiving a C- or above would receive an A on their transcripts.

We do believe that, given the uncertainty of the current environment, it is important to ensure that all students who want to take C/NC classes are able to switch to that grading scheme throughout the quarter, for major, non-major and WAYS courses. However, we believe it would be unwise to make a S/NC grading scheme mandatory by eliminating the option of taking courses for a letter grade. We focus here on the Universal S/NC proposal, but our arguments generally apply to the Universal A/NC proposal as well.

Those arguing for S/NC classes emphasize the unique circumstances individuals are contending with as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, including the need to work to the lack of a stable home or work environment, the need to attend school from a different time zone, poor internet access and the potential of having to care for a sick relative or friend. Under these circumstances, the reasoning goes, Universal S/NC is necessary to ensure educational equity. 

These concerns are real, and the intentions behind this effort are laudable, but Universal S/NC would be an inadequate policy for three reasons: First, it merely places a Band-Aid on the issue of the diverse and unequal burdens that students are facing due to coronavirus. Second, it will result in uncertainty surrounding admissions processes to graduate schools and scholarship programs and may disadvantage Stanford students unduly. Finally, it restricts student choice and disadvantages students who, for various academic reasons, may need letter grading this spring. 

A quarter of Universal S/NC would only be a superficial solution to serious problems that deserve more considered, specific attention. The coronavirus is compounding existing inequities in the burdens that students face, in ways that many reasonably fear will affect academic performance in unfair and uneven ways. It is imperative that the administration and the student body find ways to support those among us most affected by this crisis. 

Universal S/NC, instead, plasters over underlying inequality, failing to address the issues that will have long-term consequences even if they do not impact students’ GPAs. A quarter made more difficult by coronavirus will still harm some students more than others, even if this fact is not reflected on a transcript. Students who are unable to give enough attention to certain prerequisites will likely perform worse in later courses. Students who cannot devote adequate attention to a class may be discouraged from certain majors or careers. Universal S/NC is a Band-Aid solution that fails to address the underlying issue: that coronavirus will impose  unequal burdens on students and will result, at least to some degree, in diminished educational experiences and outcomes. Our concern is that the administration will use S/NC grading as an opt-out of properly addressing these issues.

Before resorting to a change in grading across the board, the administration should work to improve students’ circumstances: through financial assistance for food; stable and reliable internet access; assistance in finding and renting stable housing; work replacement stipends for students who normally work on campus; guaranteed extensions and other accommodations for standard contingencies like sickness of a student or relative; abolishment of timed tests; arrangements to ensure that international students in other timezones are not unduly disadvantaged; and mental health resources such as remote therapy and counseling.

In cases where none of these steps appropriately relieve the burden, the administration should work with instructors to determine understanding grading schemes for individual circumstances, and a S/NC option should still be able to fulfill major and distribution requirements, as the Optional C/NC option proposes. 

Not all situations of home life, we realize, can be easily fixed by injections of cash or a robust support system from our now-satellite campus. However, all of the solutions above, we believe, could go much farther to addressing student needs than changing a grading structure. In this time of crisis, we should take all the steps we can to ensure that students can make what choices are best for them and can be fully supported by the University in the choices it does make. 

Not only will a Universal S/NC quarter not effectively relieve burdens, but it will harm students in the long run in unpredictable ways, particularly those applying for scholarship programs or to graduate school. At this point, although some graduate schools have stated that they will accept S/NC grades, many have not released any guidance whatsoever on how they will consider them in their deliberations. The same is true of most scholarship programs for both undergraduate and graduate students. Therefore, the reality of a S/NC grading system is that we cannot trust that these changes will not create further unfairness. A S/NC scheme would inject further uncertainty into the process for those who most need their grades for their academic and professional prospects, uncertainty that would be most burdensome for students who may need scholarships to attend graduate schools or lack connections to certain elite networks that have sway in graduate admissions. (An A/NC grading scheme does little to assuage this uncertainty since it is unlikely most graduate or scholarship programs would consider an A received in an A/NC quarter to be equivalent to an A received in a normally graded quarter.) 

Restricting student choice may harm students who were relying on spring quarter grades for a variety of academically important reasons. There may be some students whose performance suffered in the past as a result of unforeseen circumstances out of their control who may be relying on spring quarter grades to increase their GPA or demonstrate a pattern of improvement. There are others whose families may simply refuse to financially support their education if the quarter is moved to S/NC grading. Finally (and this last point should not be taken lightly), letter grades, for many, provide crucial motivation, motivation that will be doubly important in these uncertain times. 

We should note before we close that it would be disappointing to see Stanford move forward with this proposal before appropriately considering other student requests such as reduced tuition and increased assistance for service workers on campus. Changing a grading scheme, notably, does not cost the administration a dime, but it also does not go very far toward relieving the burdens our community members are currently facing in this uncertain environment and economy. 

The administration should do whatever it can to make sure that students have the resources to thrive academically in whatever situation they may find themselves. In these uncertain times, we echo the ASSU’s call for additional feedback (live until 9 a.m. PT tomorrow) from the student body about the spring grading system, and hope that further discussion can lead to real and sustainable solutions to the underlying issues that students are facing right now.

Contact Claire Dinshaw at cdinshaw ‘at’ stanford.edu and Adrian Liu at adliu ‘at’ stanford.edu

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Claire Dinshaw is a rising senior majoring in economics and minoring in political science and feminism, gender and sexuality studies. She is originally from Connecticut. Contact at [email protected]
Adrian Liu '20 was Editor of Opinions in Volume 257.