Notes from the desk: In support of universal Pass/D/Fail


View other op-eds abut Middlebury’s remote grading policy here.

Almost every year, the college Newsroom lauds the Admissions Office for welcoming the most diverse class ever. The percentage of international students, students of color and Pell Grant recipients remain key highlights in each year’s announcement. This emphasis does not come as a surprise: diversity in backgrounds and perspectives enriches our academic experience, exposing us to new ways of understanding the world and informs us of the challenges — and triumphs — that communities beyond our own experience.

At Middlebury, we pride ourselves on being a diverse, inclusive community. But we cannot reap the benefits of diversity without recognizing — and tending to — the discrepancies in need that accompanies that diversity. Drastic socio-economic stratifications exist within Middlebury’s community; these gaps only widen in crises such as the current pandemic, when students can no longer access the resources the college provides.

For some students, having a stable internet connection, a quiet place to work, and the headspace to prioritize academics is a given. For others, these represent luxuries. Some students, scattered around the world, are no longer able to access class in realtime.  For others, employment and health insurance have become new priorities as household income is rendered intermittent due to Covid-19-related layoffs.

It is in these vastly different environments that Middlebury students will not only continue their learning, but be evaluated this semester. The current opt-in Pass/D/Fail system presents an illusion of choice. Students with economic advantages have the benefit of choosing whether or not they want to invoke Pass/D/Fail. But this choice is often out of reach for students who lack access to stable internet, study spaces and financial and housing security.

Let’s say Bob and Amy are two students who perform equally well in their studies.  Bob has his own room at home, reliable internet and does not have to worry about financial security. Amy, on the other hand, has to share a room with her parents and siblings and works part-time because her parents were laid off.

At the end of the day, Amy must either accept a grade that does not reflect her academic potential or choose to invoke Pass/D/Fail as a result of her circumstances. Bob’s decision to invoke Pass/D/Fail, however, hinges solely on considerations about his academic performance.  Facing future employers, Bob can claim that he chose a conventional grade in spite of difficulties introduced by the pandemic. In an ideal world, Amy would have done the same — and yet her circumstances preclude her from doing so.

In some cases, being forced to invoke Pass/D/Fail is not even the worst case scenario.

Let’s add a further provision: say Amy is a medical student. Since graduate schools such as Harvard Medical School announced that they won’t accept pass/fail grading schemes unless the academic institution only awards pass/fail credits during this semester, Amy will have to report a grade adversely impacted by circumstances beyond her control.

This is merely one example of the inequalities created and exacerbated by the college’s current opt-in system. This is the inequality that universal Pass/D/Fail seeks to amend.

By endorsing said model, Middlebury upholds its commitment to an equitable learning environment for every student. Removing the option to choose between the two grading schemes allows the college to relieve underprivileged and underrepresented students of the burden and pressure to take a class for a grade even if their circumstances do not permit it — most often at the expense of their mental and physical health.

Middlebury also wields considerable institutional power.  By adopting a universal Pass/D/Fail system, Middlebury introduces a sense of legitimacy should any student need to explain to an employer or graduate school admissions committee why they received passing grades instead of A’s or B’s.

Other critics of the opt-in system have suggested alternatives, such as the double A proposal first put forward by students at Harvard. However, this system creates an artificial dichotomy between “good” and “subpar” work, as represented by the “A” and “A-” grade.  As a result, those who lack resources will likely find themselves relegated to the “A-” category simply as a result of a discrepancy in resources.

Grades serve as a metric that evaluates the quality of learning. But learning is a process — and if that process is no longer relatively equitable, then grades lose their validity and meaning. Instead of indicating academic performance and potential, they reflect a stratification of means. The universal Pass/D/Fail system presents us with the opportunity to advocate for a level playing field and uplift those who are most vulnerable. And more than ever, we have the obligation to show with our actions that our commitment to diversity and inclusion isn’t just to include them in an admissions brochure.

The ball is in your court, Middlebury.



Bochu Ding ’21

Ariadne Will ’22

Caroline Kapp ’21

Hattie LeFavour ’21

Jack Kagan ’20

Lily Laesch ‘23

Rain Ji ’23

Soph Charron ‘22


The above signatories are all editors for The Campus.

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