College offers opt-in Credit/No Credit grade change policy in light of coronavirus upheaval

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Alice Feng/The Occidental

In response to the disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic, Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of the College Wendy Sternberg announced a change to the college’s grading policy for the Spring 2020 semester via email March 17. Students will receive a window of time at the conclusion of the semester to view their final letter grades and decide whether they want to opt in to a Credit/No Credit (CR/NC) grading system for one or more courses. Unlike in previous semesters, Spring 2020 courses that a student receives “Credit” for will count toward meeting major, minor and Core Program requirements. There is no limit to the number of courses a student can declare CR/NC.

CR/NC grades, Occidental’s equivalent to other schools’ “pass/fail” grading systems, appear on a student’s transcript but are not factored into their GPA. Students must receive a C or higher in order to receive “Credit.” Traditionally, students must choose to opt in to a CR/NC grading system no later than the fourth week of the semester. Prior to spring break, the college had amended other academic policies — such as extending the deadlines to drop courses and submit first-year writing portfolios — in light of the deaths of Ilah Richardson (first year) and Jaden Burris (sophomore) in weeks prior.

“The kind of upheaval that people are experiencing, coupled with what people had already been experiencing — those that were directly impacted by the tragedies earlier this semester — this was definitely not a ‘business as usual’ semester,” Sternberg said. “We wanted to think of ways to make policy adjustments that would enable students to focus on their work, but to not be preoccupied with grades.” 

Colleges and universities across the U.S. have amended their grading policies in light of major disruptions caused by COVID-19, but these policy changes are far from uniform. Some schools — such as Wellesley CollegeBowdoin College and Ivy league universities Harvard, Yale, Columbia and Dartmouth — have mandated the replacement of all letter grades with pass/fail marks. Other California institutions, such as Chapman UniversityCalifornia Lutheran University and UCLA, are allowing students to opt in to a pass/fail grading system prior to the end of classes, with no option to convert a course to pass/fail after final letter grades have been released. USC implemented a policy similar to Occidental’s, with an additional “No Record” option that lets students completely remove courses from their transcript.

Conversations about a potential grading policy change in light of the high-impact changes to the college’s instruction and residential life began prior to spring break, according to Sternberg. Initial meetings included the associate deans and department chairs, eventually expanding to include the faculty council and the registrar’s office. All faculty were notified of the policy change via an email from Sternberg March 16, in which she requested feedback before officially announcing the change to campus.

According to faculty council president and sociology professor John Lang, college employees have been trying to find ways to collaboratively problem solve — whether working within existing policies or temporarily modifying them — to ensure flexibility for students, faculty and administrators now faced with new home situations, limited resources and family care responsibilities. Lang said college employees looked for a way to approach the grading policy with as much empathy as possible, without having to rely on students’ individual agency.

“In other words, we didn’t want to put too much burden on students,” Lang said. “We didn’t want you to have to assess yourself at a particular point in time and say, ‘Yes, I’m ready,’ because we knew we were making decisions for seven or eight weeks of a semester.”

According to Jim Herr, registrar, the college had to grapple with both a tight decision-making timeline and a lack of a clarity on whether external groups, such as private scholarship organizations and federal financial aid, would amend or maintain letter-grade requirements. Nina Srdić Hadži-Nešić, president of the Associated Students of Occidental College (ASOC) and student advisory member of the college’s COVID-19 Coordinating Task Force, said students emailed her with a variety of concerns. Some worried about underperforming in classes and endangering their graduation requirements. Others had more urgent limitations, such as no accessibility to internet, time zone conflicts and unavailability due to working jobs to financially support their family.

Unlike blanket CR/NC policies that completely eliminate the option for letter grades, Srdić Hadži-Nešić said the opt-in model provides students with flexibility in meeting a variety of individual needs, from the minimum-GPA requirements of financial aid or academic probation to graduate school applications.

“It’s a much better model, because some colleges are asking students to sort of pre-enroll in Credit/No Credit, so it’s a gamble,” Srdić Hadži-Nešić said. “They don’t really know, right before the finals and everything, if that is the right decision for them, and if they are hurting or helping themselves by just saying, ‘OK, no matter the grade, I’ll just go Credit/No Credit.’”

In order to facilitate the policy change, the registrar’s office is working with the college’s Information Technology Services department to develop a method of collecting students’ opt-in decisions. While Herr expects that they will be able to automate the grade conversion process and test it extensively in advance, the registrar’s office staff will manually convert and double-check grades if necessary. According to Herr, Occidental’s character as an institution made it easier to consider a policy change in light of different student needs and perspectives.

“In a much larger institution, some of those thoughts may not have been brought to the fore, may not have been considered and folks are just like, ‘Well, that’s just a tiny number of students compared to everyone, we just had to go with something that’s easy,’” Herr said. “So that’s where I believe that Oxy really has an advantage. It’s not just size, but the type of institution that we are.”

According to Sternberg’s March 17 announcement email, the dean’s office plans to provide a comprehensive set of guidelines for students to consider when choosing to opt in to a CR/NC grading system. Herr said the registrar’s office will focus in particular on providing timely resources to seniors in order to ensure that their opt-in decisions will not impact graduation timelines.