Last week, a number of deans and vice deans of schools at Penn released a joint statement strongly discouraging students from pursuing pass/fail grading in their courses, in particular for classes related to general requirements or one's major. This email came in spite of Penn's extension of the pass/fail policy back in December, which argued that such an extension came because of continued challenges related to COVID-19.
This email was met with primarily negative reactions by Penn students. Specifically, some expressed negative attitudes towards the tone of the email, noting its apparent prioritization of possible professional repercussions over students' immediate mental health concerns. Penn students must not let Penn's email influence them, and should make the decision about pass/fail on their own.
There is no denying that the pandemic's impacts haven't been felt equally. The online format of the pandemic has widened existing educational inequalities. Not all students have the same access to technology, study time, and outside resources. Moreover, many are constantly worrying, or in the process of taking care of, sick family members. As such, those faced with stressful outside situations should not listen to the email's pressure, and make whatever decision will allow them to succeed academically.
Mental health is another reason for many students to ignore the school's advice and make the right decision for them. As a result of COVID-19, many students have reported feeling isolated, unable to see their friends or enjoy a typical college experience. Such experiences have no doubt taken a toll on their mental health. Given that negative mental health experiences have been associated with a decline in one's academic performance, and given how academics themselves can often prove to be a significant stressor, taking a class pass/fail may be a feasible route to a sounder state of mind.
Not everyone may want to pursue this option. As the email points out, those applying to graduate, law, or medical school may wish to take classes for a grade to boost their GPAs. More generally, some may not be willing to risk a negative academic perception as a result of pass/fail classes in core areas. However, such a perception is far from guaranteed; it is ultimately up to students to balance the risk and reward of a pass/fail decision, rather than the University.
Opting in to pass/fail for a class or multiple classes may be unthinkable for some, even in the midst of a global pandemic. For others, it's a no-brainer. Given the enormously varied circumstances undergraduates face, every student needs to make pass/fail decisions on their own, no matter what the University thinks.
Editorials represent the majority view of members of The Daily Pennsylvanian, Inc. Editorial Board, which meets regularly to discuss issues relevant to Penn's campus. Participants in these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on related topics.