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UMBC students are beginning their third week of online classes. Photo by Alex McKenzie.

Pass/fail policy offers students options, but leaves some with questions

As universities across the country began moving to online courses in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic in mid-March, they also began making adjustments to their grading policies. Many schools decided to move to alternative grading systems, such as optional pass/fail and universal satisfactory/no credit. For several days after other schools began announcing these policies, University of Maryland, Baltimore County students were left to wonder what steps the university would take. Some began petitioning the university to adopt a pass/fail grading system, but others feared that they would lose out on an opportunity to raise their grade point average.

Ultimately, UMBC’s administration decided to utilize an optional pass/fail grading system for the remainder of the semester; students have until June 10, two weeks after final grades are posted, to decide whether they would like to switch a grade from a letter grade to a P, which can represent any grade of D or higher. Students are encouraged to wait until they know what grade they are receiving in a class to change their grading method to pass/fail and are warned that they cannot switch back to standard letter grading after doing so.

A grade of P is not factored into students’ GPAs but can count towards the requirement that students must earn 120 credits to graduate. Additionally, for this semester only, students can use a grade of P in a general education course, excluding English composition. Because passing English composition with a C- or higher is a Maryland state requirement rather than a UMBC-specific requirement, the Maryland Higher Education Commission would have to approve the use of pass/fail grading for that course. More details regarding this semester’s policy changes can be found on the Academic Success Center’s website.

The administration had to go through an extremely expedited process to get these changes approved. A team led by Dr. Katharine Cole, the vice provost and dean of Undergraduate Academic Affairs, came together to produce a draft of the policy changes that were to be implemented. The team included Dr. Yvette Mozie-Ross, vice provost for Enrollment Management; Dr. Ken Baron, assistant vice provost for Academic and Pre-Professional Advising; Dr. Amanda Knapp, associate vice provost of Undergraduate Academic Affairs; Pam Hawley, university registrar and Jane Hickey, director of Financial Aid and Scholarships. 

By including representatives from a variety of departments, the team was able to approach the issue of grading from all relevant angles. “[It is] very important that we don’t have any unintended consequences for students, [such as] consequences with financial aid,” Cole said.

From there, the plan was sent to the provost, the deans of the colleges and the Faculty Senate Executive Committee for approval and feedback. Two bodies, the General Education Committee and the Undergraduate Council, voted in favor of the temporary policy changes. “Due to the extraordinary circumstances this semester[,] the GEC did not want students to have to decide between damaging their GPAs and having to repeat a class to fulfill their requirements,” explained Dr. Richard Sponaugle, a senior lecturer of information systems and the GEC’s chair, in an email correspondence.

The plan was finalized within a few weeks — university-wide policy changes usually take several months, according to Cole — and was subsequently communicated to students through email on Mar. 23. “The thing that sets us apart and has been so special is that it’s an option. You’ll see in the news, many campuses are moving to pass/fail but it’s a sweeping decision,” Cole said. “Students have choice, and they can make the best decisions based on that choice.”

Though many students were relieved when these policy changes were announced, others were left with questions. Student concern centered around a caveat in the email that stated that, “For major, minor, and certificate requirements, only courses enrolled under the Regular grading method in which a letter grade of ‘C’ or better is earned will be permitted, unless otherwise indicated by the academic program.”

Because many upperclassmen are primarily enrolled in courses for their majors or minors, this seemed to undercut the value of the pass/fail system. However, since then, several departments have decided to allow a grade of P to count towards any major, minor or certificate requirements. 

Among them is political science, chaired by Dr. Carolyn Forestiere. Political science was one of the first departments to officially make such a decision. The same week that the email regarding pass/fail grading was sent to students, Forestiere called a faculty meeting with only one agenda item: decide whether a P will count towards major and minor requirements.

Forestiere was pleased with how quickly and efficiently the faculty was able to come together; at 8:45 a.m. that Wednesday morning, she emailed her faculty asking them to meet only a few hours later, at 11 a.m. They did so, with almost perfect attendance, and came to a conclusion after an hour of weighing pros and cons.

But in the political science major, Forestiere noted, there are only two “hard requirements” that students have to take; the others are chosen by each student out of the various courses offered by the political science department, with few constraints. In majors with more stringent course sequences, she can understand why the department may be hesitant to implement this grading system. A grade of a D, she said, may not be high enough for students in programs like languages, “where you have to demonstrate competency at a certain level before you can be expected to do well in the next level.”

Other departments, including English, Asian studies and geography and environmental systems, have also decided to allow Ps to count towards major, minor and certificate requirements for the semester. 

However, Cole noted that even departments that do not decide to accept Ps across the board will be open to allowing students who achieve a Cs or higher in major, minor or certificate requirement courses to change those grades to a P after grades are posted if they do not want the grade on their transcripts.

The question of departmental approval, therefore, is about whether departments will allow Ds to count towards major, minor or certificate requirements, rather than whether students will be allowed to prevent unfavorable Cs and Bs from counting towards their GPAs. 

“If we can give them assurance that the final grade was, indeed, a C, the departments would have no problem moving [students] forward,” Cole said. When the time comes for students to request to change their grading method from letter grades to pass/fail, those requests will be fielded by Knapp, who says she “will work in partnership with the student and the academic department to navigate any confusion that might exist.” Those requests will be made via an online form.

Another major area of concern for students was how the switch to pass/fail grades will impact their scholarships and financial aid. According to Jane Hickey, director of financial aid and scholarships, there will be leniency in terms of what a student’s GPA must be to retain their institutional scholarships this semester as long as students achieve a P, or a letter grade of a C or higher.

Hickey was not certain precisely how federal scholarships and financial aid would be affected; she noted via email that “the recent stimulus bill passed by Congress provides flexibilities for how institutions carry out some of the federal regulations related to financial aid, but not enough information has been provided so that the university can be clear on how this may impact our students.”