Kalan K. Birnie is a junior double major in politics and theater.
One of my teachers in high school, Mr. Stone, had a point he liked to drive home. He maintained that the purpose of education was to set students up for success. Being teenagers, my classmates laughed it off, and it became a bit of an inside joke. Admittedly, part of that flippancy stemmed from us attending a highly-competitive private school. Eventual success was almost a given. We didn’t realize that some academic systems wouldn’t set us up for success.
But then I came to USF. I now understand what Mr. Stone meant, and I now understand how USF fails its students.
The COVID-19 pandemic has rocked the realm of higher education. Institutions around the country have sent students home and diverted classroom instruction to online platforms. The near-unanimous consensus from students and professors alike is that online instruction pales in comparison to the advantages of a physical classroom. Students cannot be expected to learn at the same level as before when we’re sitting in our childhood bedrooms staring at a laptop screen, hoping our professor can’t hear our dog barking. Moreover, how can professors be expected to teach at the same level when their connection to their students is through a screen and a webcam? Thousands of years of human evolution have solidified the necessity of physical interaction.
USF is not the only university dealing with these issues, but it is fumbling much more than its counterparts. While other colleges like Yale and Columbia are instituting universal pass-fail policies, the University has instead implemented optional pass-fail on all courses. This decision does not set its students up for success. USF should either institute universal pass-fail or none at all. By trying to play both sides, the university has bent backwards to help those who need the least support and left those who need help out in the cold.
It’s known that GPA alone is not an effective measure of student ability. It overwhelmingly works to the advantage of those with the financial means to focus solely on their studies and hurts those who are forced to juggle responsibilities. A 2018 study found that affluent students were more likely to receive an A in a class than a low-income student with equivalent academic ability. Intuitively, this makes sense — a less affluent student may have to spend more time working a job while in school, allowing less time to spend on homework and classwork.
In this era of distance learning, we can see a similar dynamic play out. Affluent students are far more likely to possess sufficient access to equipment to maintain their education. That’s not to say rich kids are having an easy go of things right now, but less affluent students are more likely to have other variables affecting their education, such as work, internet connection difficulties, or lack of access to necessary technology and equipment. Less affluent students are also more likely to be people of color, who are disproportionately affected by the pandemic.
Optional pass-fail disadvantages students who are facing extenuating circumstances affecting their academics and benefits those with the privilege to be able to commit all of their time to their classes during the pandemic. Those who need to opt in to pass-fail will do so because they were not able to achieve the grade they would have liked in these circumstances.
Harvard Medical School has announced pass-fail marks on a transcript will only be viewed neutrally if the applicant’s school instituted a universal pass-fail system — that is, if the student has the option to receive a letter grade instead, they should. Georgetown Univeristy, a jesuit school itself, has announced a similar policy. As the higher education world regains its footing in the pandemic playing field, we will be seeing similar stances taken by scores of graduate schools and scholarship-issuing institutions.
Students opting into pass-fail will bear a scarlet letter on their transcript. Take two students at comparable universities, both taking macroeconomics. Student A’s school has instituted a universal pass-fail system. Student B’s instituted an optional pass-fail system. Suppose both students end with a C+ in the course. Student A would automatically receive a P on their transcript. Student B would have to weigh their choices. While taking a P would not affect their GPA, any graduate school looking at Student B’s transcript would immediately be able to infer that they had received a poor grade. Student A would not be subject to that implication. All things being equal, an admitting institution would be far more likely to accept Student A. Student B is disadvantaged because their institution failed to set them up for success. Likewise, USF students will be at a comparative disadvantage to their peers at institutions with universal pass-fail.
You may be reading this and thinking, “Well, just study hard and do well, then you don’t have to worry about it.” But it’s not that simple. Some USF professors are electing to institute universal pass-fail for their entire class, whether the students opt in or not, meaning that in these instances, receiving an A won’t make a difference — a graduate school will only see an opt-in P.
A lack of definitive decision-making and effective leadership has led to a situation in which USF students are having their success undermined by the administration. The culture of trying not to rock the proverbial boat at the University has led to weak decisions and an underserved student body.
And that boldness we lack is not to be found within our student leadership, either. ASUSF Senate should be representing the needs of the student body to the administration, yet they chose not to take an official stance on the pass-fail system. For the umpteenth time, this year’s senate chose not to make waves. They spent a year avoiding confrontation with the administration so that they could “pick their battles.” Well, here we are at the end of the year, and the battle never came.