Two weeks ago, the faculty senate voted to make Satisfactory/No Credit the universal grading standard for Undergraduates this quarter.
100 students immediately circulated a petition to change the grading basis. Multiple Daily op-eds have discussed the great unfairness of the situation. Anecdotally, many of our peers have taken to text, FaceTime, and Facebook to express their outrage at Stanford for “taking their grades away.”
This is a stressful time for everyone, but many of the critiques show a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of college grades, overestimate the GPA impact of one quarter, and demonstrate a concerning callousness to the crisis that caused this change.
We are not in high school, where hundredths of a point can be the difference between acceptance and rejection from a dream school. For the vast majority of Stanford students, college grades will have an extremely minimal impact on their future.
Your college GPA is almost entirely erased after you start your first job. Including it on your resume after graduation is generally frowned upon.
It is true that medical schools, law schools, and certain PhD programs still take GPA extremely seriously. But consider someone with a 3.8 average across 11 quarters, the lower end of normal for a medical or pre-law student. Holding the number of units constant, an extra quarter of straight “A”s would only have increased their GPA by 0.017.
A Phi Beta Kappa candidate with a 3.9 could have gotten to a 3.908. It is likely that most students received similar boosts from their generously graded, final-less winter quarter classes.
If you are still convinced that extra 0.02 could have been the difference between becoming a doctor and disappointing your family, remember that the “opportunity to improve your GPA” goes both ways. Even with a quarter of easy As lined up, your best laid plans could just as easily be interrupted by becoming infected with COVID-19, not to mention a bad final or hard TA.
We are in the midst of the greatest global crisis since World War II, a point that many of the pro-grade crusaders seem to have forgotten.
Focusing on the small subset of students who could have benefitted from a graded quarter ignores those who will be facing issues much larger than grades in the coming months.
Many Stanford students were sent home to extremely stressful environments. Some have parents who are healthcare workers, or abusive, or have just lost their jobs. Many will also have to manage sick family members or will become sick themselves. On top of this, they will be taking hastily developed online classes, an untested proposition that removes many of the traditional support structures of college learning.
It would be cruel to threaten these students with “C”s so that others can get a shot at extra “A”s. An optional Credit/No Credit proposal is no better. As long as grades are offered, opting to use the CR/NC option will carry the same presumptions of laziness or poor results as in a typical quarter.
But what these agitators are really missing is that Stanford offering grades this quarter would be academically dishonest. There is no way for Stanford to approximate its typical academic environment, in which we have operated and given grades for the last 128 years, while students are dispersed around the globe dealing with a pandemic.
Not only can Stanford not ensure universal access to office hours, tutoring, and fair testing environments, but most classes are offering completely different assignments to cope with the unprecedented situation we are in. Awarding students final grades for these watered-down assignments in variable environments would cheapen grades earned in previous quarters.
Plus, if you are still healthy and motivated, there are plenty of ways to take advantage of an ungraded quarter.
You could get a big lecture class out of the way, or load up on difficult requirements now and avoid potential GPA hits in the future. If you are worried you are not going to learn enough, try a difficult course in philosophy, physics, or computer science.
Contrary to student fears, all classes taken this quarter will count normally towards major and graduation requirements.
We are all interesting, motivated people outside of school. This is an opportunity to take the time usually spent triple-checking PSETs to do independent research, read books, learn a language, or reset your sleep schedule. If you are still offended by a grade-less quarter, feel free to save your tuition and take the quarter off!
So please, stop talking about your grades. Hug your parents, update your four year plan, and be grateful that you go to a school where you will be handed opportunities regardless.