Students feel frustrated after undergraduate deans across the University released a joint advisory statement imploring students to "think very carefully" before using the pandemic-induced pass/fail option for their spring semester classes.
In the Jan. 25 statement — which was co-signed by associate deans and vice deans of the School of Engineering, College of Liberal and Professional Studies, Wharton School, College of Arts and Sciences, and the School of Nursing — the deans strongly advised students only to opt in to pass/fail grading on general requirement/core and majors/concentration courses under certain extenuating circumstances created by the pandemic. According to the statement, these challenges include family responsibilities, personal illness, limited internet access, housing insecurity, and an inability to participate in required synchronous course sessions.
The statement also said that Penn is "in the minority" among undergraduate institutions offering the pass/fail option this semester, and stressed that students taking courses pass/fail in both fall 2020 and spring 2021 risk lacking compelling academic achievement, as well as compromising future applications to jobs, professional schools, and graduate schools.
Peer institutions such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Johns Hopkins University are employing similar policies to Penn's, while other Ivy League schools like Yale University, Dartmouth University, and Harvard University returned to normal grading during fall 2020 and spring 2021.
"While it is tempting to think that simply earning a Penn degree opens doors, we know that the quality of a student’s academic work — often in areas unanticipated in their future importance — is vital to finding a fulfilling career after graduation," the statement read.
College first-year Alex Wenig said that taking one of his courses pass/fail in the fall helped alleviate the stress of taking a course which he believed had a difficult grading system in addition to navigating the virtual learning environment. He is considering using the option this semester as well.
Even though Wenig said he understood that the University does not want students to rely on this option, he nevertheless found the message to be “kind of frustrating.”
“It's already controversial the fact that they're not prioritizing mental health but we're in the middle of a pandemic that's now almost killed half a million people in this country, and they're worried about pass/failing one or two courses,” Wenig said. “I just feel like Penn sometimes doesn't take the initiative to do the things that need to be done and wants silent approval to do what's right.”
Wharton sophomore Rachel Pang voiced a similar sentiment, saying that she thought the deans' statement focused too much on professional outcomes rather than students' mental health.
“I think the policy is kind of like a facade because they're giving the option, while knowing that it's not an option that most students feel comfortable taking,” Pang said.
Similar to the grading policies for both fall and spring semesters of 2020, students can still opt in to pass/fail all courses, including those that satisfy major or general education requirements. Students thinking of using the option this semester were advised by the undergraduate deans to discuss its implications with the academic advising office in their respective schools ahead of the March 19 deadline.
College senior and Undergraduate Assembly president Mercedes Owens emphasized the importance of having the pass/fail grading option for mental health and emotional response management.
“The presence of this policy alleviates the perception of stress and academic pressure in a time when everything else is already stressful and when we also don’t have a lot of breaks,” Owens said, adding that the option can help cushion the stress of peer-driven competition. “We believe [competition] is a symptom of Penn's extremely toxic pre-professional culture already. And we should be working to alleviate that instead of supporting it."
Owens added that during fall semester meetings with the UA, the Student Committee on Undergraduate Education, and the Council of Undergraduate Deans, the deans voiced concerns that the pass/fail option would become a disadvantage for Penn students when competing against students from other universities that are currently offering normal grading policies for future jobs or graduate school admissions.
SCUE and UA representatives said, however, that utilizing the option is a decision that should be left up to students.
Engineering junior and SCUE external chair Aidan Young echoed Owens’ sentiments in a written statement to The Daily Pennsylvanian, saying that SCUE is proud of its successful efforts to provide students the support and information necessary to make the best decision for their personal circumstances.
“We are adults who go to an Ivy League university, and we should be able to logically weigh the pros and cons of our own personal academic decisions," Owens said. "If not, academic advisors should be available, and they should be ready to step in to support students who are struggling with this decision. For example, if a student is taking all their courses pass/fail, there may be a bigger issue there.”
Owens said that taking one course pass/fail last semester helped her maintain her mental health and find a balance between her extracurricular responsibilities and academic pursuits amid the stress of the pandemic. She is currently not planning on using the option this semester, but remains open to it.
Some students chose not to opt in to pass/fail grading last semester in fear of potential future consequences.
Nursing sophomore Claire Hennessey opted not to take any courses pass/fail last semester because she was afraid that doing so would become a problem if she decided to sub-matriculate into a graduate program in the future. She added that she felt as if she was not facing any extenuating circumstances.
Despite viewing online school as non-beneficial to her learning ability, especially with some nursing classes, Hennessey said that taking her courses for a letter grade pushed her to work harder, as she was striving for a certain grade rather than an overall pass.
Still, she emphasized that the significance of enrolling in pass/fail grading differs on a case-by-case basis.
Pang also chose not to opt into pass/fail grading in the fall because she felt uncomfortable with the University’s discouraging attitude regarding the option and was afraid that future employers would penalize her if she used it.
Taking all of her courses for a letter grade in an online learning environment ultimately added a lot of stress to her semester.
“In my apartment in [Philadelphia] there just wasn't a lot of room and it was difficult to concentrate, and it felt like I was on Zoom and on my computer constantly,” Pang said, adding that she is now considering using the pass/fail option this semester. “I think it definitely was detrimental to my mental health and I think that overall it was a lot more stress than I would have experienced in a normal semester.”