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03-1-21-pass-fail-pennintouch-spring-2021-alvin-yu
Credit: Alvin Yu

The COVID-19 pandemic killed higher education as we know it. Instead of being a time when students could experiment with adulthood, many students were relegated to their childhood bedrooms as they took classes online. Knowing that their campus community faced more than normal amounts of stress, anxiety, and responsibilities, Penn and its Ivy League peers instituted pass/fail policies over the past few semesters, often allowing students to pass/fail courses while still counting towards academic requirements.

However, some Penn students may be regretting their decision to take classes pass/fail due to considerable uncertainty on how classes taken pass/fail during the pandemic will be treated by employers, graduate schools, and other institutions. Made worse, much of this reckoning comes on a tight deadline, as decisions for life after college approach rapidly for graduating seniors. Moreover, many of the uncertainties of the pandemic still loom large for the foreseeable future. Thus, when employers and graduate schools look at Penn students, they should not hold pass/fail grades against them.

Perhaps the most obvious reason to not judge pass/fail grades is the relatively early deadline Penn students faced when electing pass/fail. This semester, students were required to make a decision by March 19, compared to April 5 for Harvard or April 15 for Columbia. Given that Penn students have been rushed into a decision compared to their peers, they are making such a decision with less thought and less knowledge about what their final grade may look like. Particularly in a global pandemic, this is something that should not be held against them. 

Furthermore, although the University has generously relaxed pass/fail restrictions in light of the current global environment, it has also issued occasionally confusing guidance. At the beginning of the semester, the undergraduate deans sent out an email warning students to "think very carefully" about pass/failing a class, given the possible professional and academic implications of such a decision. However, student leaders opposed the email, and many students found the lack of concern for their well-being upsetting. Given that students are receiving conflicting guidance from their peers, the University's deans, and University policy, and given that students do not know the full implications of a pass/fail decision, it seems unfair for employers and graduate schools to hold taking a class or two pass/fail against them. 

However, the most important reason that employers and graduate schools shouldn't discount students' pass/fail grades is because of the new, pandemic-induced, way of life. Not only has the pandemic fundamentally altered higher education, but it has taken a considerable toll on students' mental and physical well-beings, with undergraduates experiencing everything from social isolation to grief from the loss of a family member. The global pandemic has impeded the ability of many students to think clearly and achieve their best. As such, nobody should be judged for pass/failing a class in this environment.

In contrast, employers and graduate schools, in certain circumstances, might want to see pass/fail grades as a sign of strength. Specifically, such grades in this environment often showcase a willingness to prioritize one's personal well-being over the letter on a transcript. Having the confidence to make such a tradeoff shouldn't just be seen as admirable on a personal level, but admirable to employers as well.

Of course, there are exceptions to this principle. A student with a transcript full of pass/fail grades, with very few letter grades, provides little to no indication of their academic record, and it is thus understandable that employers and graduate schools may be hesitant. However, graduate schools and employers should not judge negatively those with lengthy records of academic success and a few courses taken pass/fail over the course of an undergraduate degree.

Penn students have been through enough over the past year as is, facing plenty of stressors. Employers and graduate schools can relieve one of them by coming and saying that no student, Penn or elsewhere, will be punished simply because they elected to take some classes pass/fail.

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.

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