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Articles / Applying to College / College Grading During COVID-19

College Grading During COVID-19

Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | April 2, 2020
College Grading During COVID-19


College students are in the Twilight Zone. Some have been summarily and inconveniently tossed out of their dorms. Most have been transitioned to so-called "virtual learning," the quality of which is dependent upon their college's technical savvy and preparation. The allure of college social life has been nullified because most students are now confined to their homes. No four-day weekend parties there! In other words, the entire higher-ed universe is now inverted, thanks to the coronavirus (COVID-19).

Colleges Vary in Grading Policies

College grinds on, however, be it ever so disjointed. The variable quality of online learning, in conjunction with the wide array of disparate student circumstances, has given rise to a significant controversy: How to issue grades under these circumstances. Let's take a look at some of the approaches colleges are taking.

First, here are some highlights from Harvard University's approach:

Harvard College will adopt an Emergency Satisfactory/Emergency Unsatisfactory (SEM/UEM) grading policy for the spring semester, a shift announced Friday by Claudine Gay, Edgerley Family Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

"We of course remain committed to academic continuity, but we cannot proceed as if nothing has changed. Everything has changed," said Gay in a letter to the FAS community, recognizing unanimous endorsement from Faculty Council.

Peer institutions, such as Dartmouth, Stanford, Yale, Columbia, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology , have moved to similar grading policies for their spring terms. Factoring equity as a prime motivator, Gay said: "[F]or some students the challenges have been more severe. Some have seen parent job losses, or have had to take over child care and other household responsibilities, as health care and other essential workers in their families continue to provide critical support or have become ill themselves. Those who relied on the public library for internet access are struggling to find other ways to join their classmates online, as public buildings are ordered closed. Students in a time zone 12 hours away from us are feeling remote and closed off by time, and by closed borders."

Gay acknowledged "not everyone will agree with this policy, and I have heard reasonable arguments on all sides."

Some Students Want Grades Abolished

What's happening elsewhere? The New York Times sums it up nicely at the head of their article surveying this topic:

College students across the country are pushing to abolish grades, saying the only letters that matter now are C-O-V-I-D.

Over the past few days, colleges across the country have begun to respond, with schools as varied as Ohio State, Columbia and Carnegie Mellon adopting a seemingly endless variety of pass/fail or credit/no credit systems, at a scale not seen since the protests against the Vietnam War disrupted classes in the late 1960s.

Some universities will still offer the option of letter grades, while others have dropped them altogether. But that's not good enough for some students, who are seeking a "universal pass" — meaning that nobody would fail, regardless of performance and whether they can continue to take online classes, and that letter grades would be abolished.

The idea has acquired petition campaigns on scores of campuses and even an acronym among the cognoscenti: UP ...

Follow that link to "petition campaigns." There you will find (at this writing) 92 colleges petitioning for the Universal Pass option on the change.org site.

These are the initial dominoes that will, in my view, fall and create a large chain reaction leading to many colleges adapting a UP policy. I don't think that all colleges and universities will come into line with this, though, since "integrity" and "academic excellence" will be declared as the unchangeable cornerstones of some institutions.

In another unique solution to grading under crisis circumstances, one Ivy League professor came up with a simple idea: "Just give every college student an automatic A." Really?

In an op-ed for The Washington Post entitled "Forget distance learning. Just give every college student an automatic A," Columbia University professor Jenny Davidson called on fellow professors to give all students As for the spring 2020 term.

Davidson that this is necessary because the move to online learning is simply impractical and presents "inequities in the ways that this will all play out for different students," adding that "grading as we know it is already over for the semester."

"It's time to abandon our preconceived ideas about what needs to happen in a college class for a student to get credit for it," says Davidson.

Davidson urges professors to "strip down work expectations to the bare minimum." She insists that colleges should "introduce a mandatory pass-fail at the very least," and seriously consider giving all students "A grades as a default."

In fact, Davidson says schools and professors should go ahead and "wrap classes up as quickly as possible" so that "students can turn their full attention to other pressing matters."

I'm wondering how students who have worked hard for a high grade thus far this term or semester would feel about those who are just barely squeaking by (or even failing at this point) getting an "A" also. To use a COVID-19 catch phrase, wouldn't that tend to seriously "flatten the curve?"

If you have some spare sheltering-in-place time, check out some of the 652 comments that follow Davidson's op-ed. You will be entertained. For example:

- Just in case college degrees weren't already worthless.

- This is the most creative way I have ever seen of getting out of a university committee assignment! I cannot imagine Columbia will let her chair anything serious after she has written this dribble.

- I guess this should apply to medical schools, too.

- The author is claiming this will help her students, while in reality, it's just helping her. No papers to grade, no tough choices to make, no judgment about students who don't measure up. How convenient. Everyone gets a trophy and we don't keep score. This from a "top-rated" university that charges in excess of $60k a year? Remind me not to hire anyone from Columbia with an English degree. Her students should be suing her for fraud.

I searched for information pertaining to terms similar to "colleges hold the line on grading during COVID-19," but found none. The closest response I got was an opinion piece from insidehighered.com: In a Pandemic, Everyone Gets an Asterisk. Heading straight to the conclusion, a reasonable contention appears:

When this is over, many of us will gladly return to our former ways. And there's nothing wrong with that: crisis operations are in no way replacements for best practices. Yet in this extraordinary time of innovation and pedagogical sharing, we are seeing renewed commitment to teaching, to caring and to generosity across fields, ranks and institutions. These are precious. Adjunct and junior faculty and graduate student instructors have, notably, been at the forefront of solicitous sharing, despite the abuses many of them have experienced in our profession. We must remember that.

This crisis has forced us to put our old habits and practices under a spotlight. We've been required to get creative and to do it fast -- too fast. Maybe the other requirement for this time is to recognize that, although we might not be perfect, we actually might be learning new methods and techniques and embracing values that improve what we were doing before.

We are all being tested in the most profound way by this disease. Rethinking how we assess, test and grade our students not only gives them flexibility at an impossible time. It also gives instructors an opportunity to be flexible. It allows us all -- faculty, students and staff -- to give ourselves an asterisk that says, simply and profoundly, we are human.

I like the part that says, "This crisis has forced us to put our old habits and practices under a spotlight. We've been required to get creative and to do it fast -- too fast …"

Maybe it's time for a change -- a sweeping, global, bigtime change -- in higher education. Things look different and attitudes evolve when everything we see is upside down.

Share Your Thoughts

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Written by

Dave Berry

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

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