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Pass/fail grades may help students during the COVID-19 crisis, but could cost them later

Almost as soon as students fled their universities and colleges ahead of the coronavirus lockdowns, petitions started flying back.

In the midst of such disruption — with hastily prepared classes delivered remotely, and without professors’ office hours, libraries or advisors — students were demanding the option to pass or fail their courses this semester, instead of getting letter grades. Many universities and colleges agreed.

It could become a lesson in being careful about what you wish for.

That’s because the already very low rate at which academic credit transfers from one institution to another is likely to be even lower for courses graded simply “pass,” forcing transfer students to sit through, and pay for, the same courses again. Many competitive professional or graduate programs may not accept those courses as part of their admission requirements at all.

“When we were implementing our pass/fail here for this semester, I heard from terrified students who were pre-health, pre-med, who were saying, ‘Oh my God, please don’t do this — I won’t get into schools,’” said Sarah Kelly, senior vice president for enrollment management and student affairs at Loyola University New Orleans, which is allowing students to opt for pass/fail grades as late as three days before the end of the semester.

Loyola and many other universities and colleges that have switched to pass/fail this spring are at least giving students the choice of sticking with a letter grade; the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Carnegie Mellon University are even letting them wait to decide until about a week, and the University of North Carolina until almost three months after they see their final grades.

Others so far aren’t allowing that level of flexibility. Columbia has switched to pass/fail without an option for a letter grade. So have Stanford (satisfactory/no credit) and Dartmouth (credit/no credit). MIT is giving students grades of “PE,” essentially meaning “pass”; “NE,” the equivalent of a D or F; and “IE,” for incomplete, with a note on transcripts explaining that the grading switch was due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Soon-to-be graduates — even from universities and colleges of that caliber — may face issues when they apply to medical school, law school or other graduate programs with grades of merely “satisfactory” or “passing,” although a handful of graduate programs have stepped up to say that they will take the circumstances into account.

Harvard Medical School, for instance, has said it will accept “pass” grades for courses taken this semester, although it notes that “letter grades would be preferred if the option for such grades is offered” — fine print that suggests there could be problems ahead for some applicants.

But experts say the biggest impact will be on undergraduates who want to transfer, a proportion already much larger than is widely understood and likely to get bigger in the wake of the pandemic.

Nearly 4 in 10 college and university students transfer at least once, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Those proportions are expected to rise as a result of the disruptions caused by the coronavirus.

They lose, on average, more than 40 percent of the credits they’ve already earned and paid for, the U.S. Government Accountability Office found in the most recent national study of this problem, in 2017 — requiring them to retake courses and increasing the amount of time and money spent to get degrees. Even some of the credits that are accepted don’t apply toward students’ majors.

That’s one of the biggest reasons students who get bachelor’s degrees end up having paid for an average of 15 credits that didn’t count by the time they graduate, or a full semester’s worth, the advocacy group Complete College America has calculated.

Many never get that far and just drop out.

“And that was in the good old days,” said Davis Jenkins, senior research scholar at the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University. (The Hechinger Report, which produced this story, is also housed at Teachers College.)

Jenkins and others expect that grades of only “pass” will make it even harder for students to get transfer credit for the work they’re doing this semester.

“My concern is it becomes another excuse to not accept their credit, or to give them elective credit and not apply it to their major,” said John Mullane, president of College Transfer Solutions, which works with universities and colleges to streamline the complicated transfer process.

“With a pass/fail in biology or engineering or business, I see them giving biology elective credit or engineering elective credit and making [students] retake that course,” Mullane said. “That could set them back a semester or a year.”

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The California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office has already warned that “the potentially adverse transfer implications of a pass or no-pass grading option remain in effect” for community college students who plan to transfer to the state’s public four-year universities.

Those universities require courses in majors to have letter grades, the chancellor’s office noted, meaning any with just a “passing” grade may have to be retaken. Many restrict the number of pass/fail credits that can be accepted. And, in some instances, a grade of “passing” can drag down a student’s grade-point average.

It’s often students at community colleges who have the most difficulty transferring. Eighty percent say, when they begin school, that they plan to transfer to a four-year university and get a bachelor’s degree, but only 14 percent actually manage to do it, according to research coauthored by Jenkins.

Those who transfer to a private four-year campus lose 56 percent of the credits they’ve already earned, on average, according to Jenkins and his colleague; to a four-year public university, 22 percent.

Advocates for transfer students are encouraging them to stick with letter grades.

“Some students who were thrown into this and are not able to cope with it — I’m not against giving them the option of pass/fail,” Mullane said. “But students need to be aware of the ramifications of doing that.”

This has led to arguments among students, and now counter-petitions demanding the option of letter grades. MIT’s mandatory PE/NE/IE policy, for instance, “is causing undue stress to a significant number of students who believe this semester’s grade may play a meaningful role in their future academic and career plan,” undergraduates at that university asserted in a petition calling for the chance to opt for letter grades.

Whatever happens, educators say they hope that institutions will be sympathetic when they consider graduate and professional school applications and whether to award transfer credit for courses taken in this ill-fated semester.

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They have a significant incentive, considering that the economic toll of the pandemic is projected to further reduce enrollment that had already been declining. Transfer students in particular are an important potential market for bachelor’s degree-granting institutions struggling to fill seats.

“I respect the fact that institutions don’t want to lower their standards, and that changing their processes is exceptionally complex,” said Janet Marling, executive director of the National Institute for the Study of Transfer Students at the University of North Georgia. “But as universities are concerned about enrollment, it becomes even more incumbent on them to help these students.”

Some already are. Unlike their California counterparts, for instance, four-year public universities in Virginia have agreed to accept a “pass+” grade — equivalent to a C or better — for transfer credit from community college students this semester.

“That’s the responsibility of every university,” said Anne Kress, president of Northern Virginia Community College, who decried what she called the “transfer credit whirlpool.” “To pretend that this semester is like every other semester is quite frankly ridiculous.”

Even before this semester started, Kelly, at Loyola, brought together associate deans at her school, she said, to discuss how transfer credit was being awarded. The meeting was prompted by a transfer application from a student who, under Loyola policy, couldn’t get credit for the advanced-placement calculus exam he’d passed in high school — even though the prestigious public flagship university he attended had accepted it, and even though he had already also passed Calculus 2.

The student ended up going somewhere else.

“Higher education has created a cottage industry” out of deciding whether credits will transfer or not, Kelly said. “Most of it is born out of really well-intentioned policies and wanting to have integrity. But what it really comes down to is, ‘Our Calculus is better than your Calculus.’”

“So we said, ‘Enough.’ We want to remove as many barriers as possible for transfers, especially at this time, when transfer is one of the biggest levers I think we have to pull” to draw from a dwindling supply of students, she said.

There remains some skepticism about whether many other institutions will do this for the students being graded “pass” or “fail” this semester.

“They’re going to have to make special allowances, and my guess is that they’re not going to do it on their own,” but only in response to outside pressure, Jenkins said.

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“Not all institutions have the flexibility to entertain the idea of accepting a ‘pass’ credit,” added Marling. “Many institutions are guided by systems, and the systems have authority over what they can and can’t do.”

Some advocates think there is a silver lining — that this semester might accelerate efforts to smooth out the confounding transfer process.

“This is the wake-up call that we need,” said Kelly. “This is a point where we have to start leaning into the integrity of our programs, the integrity of higher education and the integrity of our accreditation — to rely on that and take one another’s word for it” that work completed successfully at one institution deserves credit from another.

Kress, at Northern Virginia, agreed it’s time for institutions to fix the transfer problem, especially for students trying to keep their heads above water right now.

“Every single day we are reminded that this is a moment when we should show greater kindness and greater generosity,” she said. “And if we don’t, I don’t know how we’ll be judged going forward.”

This story about transfer credits was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.