October 10, 2011

Free pass

A pass/fail system for the first quarter of college would help ease the transition into a new environment.

The transition into college can be one of the most challenging parts of a student’s time at this university. Whether it’s due to higher academic standards or just living away from home, the fact of the matter is that, for most, college life represents a major shift from high school. The transition can often be rocky and fraught with frustration—particularly in the first quarter of college, where many students are forced to struggle with Karl Marx and delta-epsilon proofs for the first time. This awkward adjustment period often negatively affects one’s GPA, which can follow a student throughout college. A policy that grades all first quarter first-year students on a pass/fail scale, similar to those at peer institutions like MIT,  presents  a compelling solution to this problem.

One might object that this policy is unfair. However, it’s significantly more unfair to penalize first-years for failing to live up to academic standards that they often have little to no understanding of than it is to give them a leg up that upperclassmen did not have when they started college. This policy would also require professors to privately give students a letter grade that represents what they would have gotten had they not taken the course pass/fail. This, in turn, would help first-year students understand the expectations of college classes without hurting their GPAs in the long run.

However, this idea has more going for it than just fairness. We can all agree that GPA matters somewhat; whether it’s for grad, medical, or law school, or just for a job in general, a GPA can often stick out as the primary measure of one’s quality as a student. Nobody here is advocating rampant grade inflation as a solution to graduate school admissions or job placement, but since one’s grades are so important, it seems prudent, for one quarter, to allow students to transition into college without the threat of permanently damaging their career or graduate school plans.

Of course, this policy is not perfect. One drawback is that students who do excel in their first quarters don’t reap the benefits of their efforts. Undoubtedly, a non-trivial amount probably finish their first-quarter with excellent grades that, in the long run, help their GPAs. This is a serious concern without an easy solution, and it shows that even a well-intentioned policy like this one presents trade-offs.

Nevertheless, the rationale for pass/fail first quarter grading is too convincing to ignore completely. At the end of the day, giving students a transition period during their first quarter will help keep them from doing severe damage to their future career and education plans; it would allow them, for the first time in a long while, to not worry about grades and just focus on overall well-being and learning for its own sake. This system would allow students to orient themselves both socially and academically within the undergraduate community.