While imperfect, pass/no pass option is best for students

Last month, a letter from Provost Charles Zukoski informed undergraduate students that they would have the option to take all their courses pass/no pass or no record for the Spring 2020 semester. The email told students that these courses would count toward all University requirements and that students would have until May 27 to make their decision, after final exams have been graded. 

This announcement was just one of many that followed USC’s decision to move all courses online for the remainder of the semester in light of the increased severity of the coronavirus pandemic. While this solution is imperfect, it shows the University’s commitment to allow students to take charge of their own academics and equips students for different possibilities in these uncertain times. 

Schools across the country have implemented different grading schemes for this term and many have advocated for a mandatory pass/no pass policy. Such a policy would enforce a sense of equality across USC, forcing all students to adopt the same grading scale for the year and reducing competition. However, this completely removes the opportunity for students to improve their GPA’s this semester, something that might make all the difference between future job opportunities and graduate school. 

Giving the choice to switch courses allows for more freedom on the part of the students. For those who have gone home to sick family members or out-of-work parents, having the option to move all of one’s grades to pass/no pass could relieve a large burden. While students still have to attend classes and do the work, they can allocate their energy to dealing with immediate problems their family might be facing in this unprecedented time. 

This change also allows those students who plan to pursue education beyond a four-year university to keep their academic rigor at a similarly high level. Many of these students, including those attending graduate school, medical school or any PhD program may not be able to take a whole semester pass/no pass and still attend the program of their choice. 

This switch to pass/no pass or some variation is not uncommon for universities across the United States. Alongside USC, UCLA and Yale have both adopted this student-choice option for pass/no pass, in addition to extending deadlines for dropping classes. Other California schools like Stanford have taken a more drastic stance, adopting a mandatory pass/no pass system for all undergraduate students. 

While USC made it clear in their March 30 memo that this semester’s grades would have no impact on their graduate school admissions, it’s impossible to know if other graduate schools will forgive a semester of pass/no pass courses. Forcing students into a pass/no pass system gambles students’ grades on a possibility, rather than giving them control over their academic futures.

Student groups have pushed the issue even farther, calling for measures such as “universal pass” for college students. The Los Angeles Times reports that UC Berkeley students proposed a measure to guarantee “A’s for All” for the spring semester, while student groups at Yale and UCLA have hotly debated the merits of a universal pass system. While such a change could help those who are struggling amid the coronavirus pandemic, it faces similar issues as the universal pass/no pass system. 

By denying students access to their grades, they could lose out on possible opportunities later in life. In addition, the change completely removes any motivation for students to put any work into their studies. This devalues the work that students have put into their classes and all the work that professors have done in order to make engaging and rigorous course plans for their students. USC’s choice to move the pass/no pass deadline until after finals alleviates some of this pressure, as students can make the decision based on their final grades in each class. 

While none of these solutions are perfect, USC’s pass/no pass option gives the most freedom to students, allowing them to treat their academic lives how they see fit. While this is an extremely strange and tough time for all students, dedicating some time to coursework and studies can help provide some structure and normalcy. It can also allow students to interact with their classmates and find some sense of community even though they are unable to leave their homes. The University’s policy shows that in these trying times, it cares about both the personal and academic needs of its students.