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Pass/Fail and Transfer


Monday’s IHE article on the different policies regarding pass/fail grading at colleges across the country was quite good, but it left out a key consideration for community colleges: our students need to know whether, and on what basis, “pass” grades will be accepted in transfer.


Transfer doesn’t come up in the piece, which is a shame.  Locally, when we discuss pass/fail, transfer usually comes up in the first minute or so.


In the spring of this year, when the pandemic hit campuses and everything changed on a dime, many of us went to some variation on ‘pass/fail.’  (Ours is “pass/no credit.”)  Under some pressure from students, many universities announced — grudgingly, but still — that they’d accept grades of “pass” in transfer, but only for courses taught in the spring of 2020.  The idea was that in the context of such abrupt and drastic change, it was hard to argue credibly that the difference between a B and a B-minus could only have reflected student performance.  The industry broadly agreed that the mid-semester switch constituted a sort of academic force majeure.


Looking back on those more innocent times, they reflected a belief that the pandemic would dissipate quickly.  But it’s December, and here we are.


One of the arguments in favor of pass/fail that applied in the spring clearly doesn’t apply this semester: the abrupt mid-semester shift.  But most of the other arguments still do.  Students’ lives are often chaotic and/or desperate.  Family members fall ill, suddenly requiring both more care and more mental bandwidth.  The recession is still with us, and with the decline of summer seasonal positions, it may also be preparing a second wave.  And while faculty had more than a week this time to prepare for Zoom, it’s still new, and we’re all still figuring out how best to use it as a teaching platform.  


(A request for the folks who program Zoom: PLEASE put in an option to restrict screen sharing to one half of the screen, so the person presenting can actually see faces.  It’s hard enough to read the room at a distance without having faces blocked by a PowerPoint.)


When we came back for the fall, we had to decide what to do about pass/fail.  Locally, we decided to extend the deadline for a student to choose pass/no credit to the normal deadline for withdrawing from a class.  Other colleges chose differently.  But we were all more or less guessing, which made it difficult to advise students.  Would receiving schools give credit?  


In our defense, they’ve taken their sweet time making any decisions at all.  For example, Rutgers announced on November 25 (!) that students would have the option of pass/fail for this semester.  The announcement made no mention of transfer.  Would grades of “pass” earned here be treated with the same respect as grades of “pass” earned there, or would they be treated like D’s?  “Native” students are allowed to count credits for which they received D’s, but transfer students’ D’s are disallowed.  Brookdale defines a “pass” as a C or better, but not every college does, and I could imagine some sweeping decisions being made based on outliers.


For the record, my view is that as long as we’re under pandemic conditions, we as an industry should be more open to pass/fail.  I’ll happily abandon that view once we’re back to something more normal.  But we’re not there yet, and I don’t see us being there by the start of the spring semester in January, either.  


As long as four-year schools send unclear, late, or mixed signals on the transferability of “pass” grades, the pass/fail option will do limited good at community colleges.  So, a plea to my colleagues at receiving institutions: please give us a clear signal for the spring before the spring, so we can advise our students.  Otherwise, with all of the best intentions, we may inadvertently allow students to take classes that won’t count.  In the context of a global pandemic, that just adds insult to injury.


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Monday, November 30, 2020
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Monday, November 30, 2020