Op-eds, Opinions

Ruzicka ’21: Brown should make all courses S/NC while allowing grade petitions

By
Op-Ed Contributor
Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Amid the panic and fear caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, college students everywhere have been left in limbo about the trajectory of their academic careers. The most prominent concern I have encountered among students is the impact the global crisis might have on their academic success, and specifically on their transcripts. Maddie McCarthy ’23 argued in a recent op-ed in The Herald that the University should enforce mandatory S/NC for all courses — but this measure would be unwise, as it robs students of the opportunity to take certain classes for a grade in order to apply to graduate schools or other post-graduation opportunities. In lieu of a binding S/NC mandate, the University should change all grade options to S/NC and allow individual students to petition to take certain classes for a letter grade.

A policy of S/NC with the option to petition for a letter grade provides all students with an avenue to success. It rightfully subverts the assumption that all students should be able to perform as well working at home as they would on campus. On top of the fact that students are experiencing a tremendous lifestyle change, many now have significantly limited access to educational resources. Changing the default grade option to S/NC would spare students from the added burden of dealing with another step in order to take advantage of the new grading policy. Furthermore, this change can take pressure off of students’ shoulders and let them focus on learning what they can during this stressful time, even if they do not achieve perfection.

Despite all of the aforementioned benefits of universal S/NC, we must consider how this option might disadvantage some students. For those who are pre-med or pre-law, or are applying to other graduate programs, transcripts matter a great deal. Graduate admissions officers often look down on students who take too many classes S/NC, especially if those classes are concentration requirements or otherwise related to their advanced field of study.

Although other universities, including Columbia and Dartmouth, have already switched to a mandatory pass/fail policy, this does not necessarily mean that Brown should follow suit. Since it is impossible to know how many universities will enforce a mandatory pass/fail policy during this crisis, we must weigh the possibility that if it adopts a mandatory S/NC policy, Brown could be among the minority of universities. Yale, Penn and Cornell have offered a pass/fail option, which allows their students the choice to take their classes either pass/fail or for a grade depending on their preference. If this is the case, making classes mandatory S/NC would actively disadvantage Brown students when they apply to graduate schools, and could force students to take some courses again in order to receive the letter grade essential to strengthening or completing their applications.

The solution to this dilemma is to allow students to petition to take select courses for a letter grade. This process should be overseen by deans and require individual students to state which class or classes they desire to take for a letter grade with a justification for their choice. The deans would have the discretion to approve or reject the proposals. However, they should release guidelines in advance, both to increase transparency and to reduce the number of petitions they must vet, which would allow students to evaluate their own situations to an extent before submitting a request.

Making all courses S/NC with the option for students to petition for a letter grade is the academic policy that best balances different interests during this chaotic period. It allows the University to combat the false notion that all students are on a level playing field when they take classes from home — while giving students a say in their own academic trajectory, based on their individual needs. This course of action is more personalized and accommodating than a mandatory S/NC policy and reduces stress on everyone, whether they want to take classes S/NC to focus on learning what they can or for a grade if they are working toward a specific post-graduate goal.

Emilia Ruzicka ’21 can be reached at emilia_ruzicka@brown.edu.  Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

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