Wellesley College announced in an email sent on March 18 that Spring 2020 grades will be moving to a mandatory credit/non grading status due to the COVID-19 outbreak. While some Wellesley students were relieved the College made this decision, others were upset that the College would not be providing them the opportunity to display their grades on their transcripts. I stand in the former group: I believe that Wellesley College made the correct decision by instituting mandatory credit/non grading this semester.
A college-wide credit/non policy relieves us of having to make choices between our grades and our most immediate needs — and by us, I truly mean all of us. As Provost Shennan wrote in the email, “It is likely that some of us, faculty and students alike, will become ill or have family members who are ill and will therefore not be able to do our best work for all that remains of the semester.” In these uncertain times, none of us knows who will be disadvantaged, who will get sick, who will have family and friends who will get sick. The world is not just in any public health crisis but a global pandemic caused by a virus that often leaves its carriers symptomless and spreads exponentially. Expecting students and faculty to care about letter grades would be entirely unrealistic when we are faced with an unprecedented, terrifying situation. Wellesley’s mandatory credit/non grading recognizes that all of us have more critical concerns than our coursework and allows us to deal with the change of the coming months without having grades be yet another worry on our minds.
Wellesley’s decision, moreover, acknowledges the global financial chaos COVID-19 has wreaked. Up till now, the record high for jobless claims in one week in the U.S. was 695,000 in 1982; for the week ending March 21, economist David Choi at Goldman Sachs estimates that there will be 2.25 million jobless claims in the U.S. Behind each of these 2.25 million claims will be an individual, including some of our fellow students at Wellesley College and their family members. Many of our fellow students are worried about finances, are working full-time jobs just to make ends meet and are scrambling right now to secure their families’ livelihoods along with their own. While such circumstances are the case for many students during an ordinary academic year, the financial and public-health repercussions of this pandemic will reach even more people in an unpredictable way. Mandatory credit/non allows those affected to prioritize such pressing situations over grades.
As students, it is easy for us to forget that our professors’ lives are also being upended by COVID-19. Many of our professors have young children who will be home from school till April 7 at the earliest. Some are caretakers for older parents and relatives, while others are old enough that they must isolate themselves. Opt-in letter grades would only further burden professors by requiring them to devise new grading criteria based on a revised syllabus, schedule and format.
If faculty are to assign letter grades, students would logically have to complete student evaluation questionnaires (SEQs) that impact professors’ reappointments and promotions. Yet filling out an SEQ in this situation would be entirely unfair to faculty members, whose tenures and merit increases should not be impacted by their ability to cobble together an online class in a stressful, unpredictable environment that was not included in their job descriptions. Provost Shennan wrote in his email, “Although our usual standard for credit in a course offered mandatory credit/non is that students have a grade of C (and not C- or D), we have told faculty that they should give credit to students who have satisfied the demands of the course without requiring them to link that determination to a letter grade.” Such leniency would not be possible in letter grading, which requires a stricter set of standards.
There have been a few petitions for alternate grading policies floating around social media groups. One such petition calls for a universal pass and asks the College to convert an MCRD to an A and an MCR to an A-. Practically, the double A part of the proposal might make transcripts look inconsistent down the line: if I were taking Calculus I right now and understood enough of the material to get a C in the class, I might get a C in Calculus II next semester, only without the cover of a shadow-graded A-. These A/A- grades would not indicate our actual performance in the class and would do nothing but artificially inflate our GPAs; if letter grades and GPAs are supposed to provide information — however imperfect — about a student’s understanding of a subject, inflation renders that information meaningless. An MCRD/MCR, on the other hand, refrains from making judgements on the information grades typically provide, instead demonstrating that we have adequately learned the material needed to pass a given class.
An optional credit/non policy, while marginally better than an unchanged grading policy, would only exacerbate existing inequalities. Students who already experience hardship — primarily students whose family income has been impacted by COVID-19, immunocompromised students, students with poor internet connectivity and students with larger family responsibilities — would likely be the ones taking this option, while their counterparts without these same concerns might be able to use this semester to improve their transcripts. In the future, students seeking jobs or graduate school placements might have to explain why they chose to credit/non the semester; instead, with mandatory credit/non, all of us can say that our Spring 2020 grades are credit/non because of the College’s grading policy.
We have to band together as a community and understand that we must act toward the collective good, even when it does not align with our individual desires. I know there are students who were relying on this semester to boost their GPAs for graduate school or Latin honors. I know it’s frustrating to have worked hard for a half semester only to not see that work count toward a GPA; as a first year student, this is my second semester in a row without grades, so on a personal level, I’m not thrilled to have a 0.00 GPA until January 2021. That being said, this is a global pandemic, so employers and graduate schools will understand why our grades were credit/non this semester. 75.36 percent of the Wellesley College Class of 2019 was employed, while 18.94 percent was accepted to graduate school — looking at these statistics from Wellesley Career Education, I have every reason to believe our future prospects will be just fine.
There is ultimately no solution that will simultaneously make everyone happy while leveling the playing field for students and faculty in these bizarre, trying times. Keeping in mind the unfortunate reality that any policy will have trade-offs, mandatory credit/non was the most reasonable response available to the College. I found Provost Shennan’s letter to be considerate of our current circumstance and compassionate towards students and faculty alike. Wellesley, by telling us that we should “do our work and support one another without being required to make judgments,” has explicitly stated that grades and SEQs are not the most important things right now, and that we need not treat them as such. I am proud and grateful to attend an institution that sees me, my peers and my professors as people. In that spirit, I believe that we, as a student body, need to worry less about grades and more about each other. Mandatory credit/non grading allows us to do just that.