Provost Liz Magill sent out a University-wide email March 18 detailing the implementation of a credit/no credit grading system for all undergraduate courses. According to the email, students will be automatically transitioned into the credit/no credit system. Students will then be given the choice to opt in to receive a regular letter grade prior to the beginning of the final exam period. A few weeks later, the administration announced the addition of a “general credit” option. While the CR/NC opt-in policy was created in response to “extraordinary challenges” in the midst of the pandemic, the current implementation overlooks its original purpose and only serves to perpetuate underlying inequities among the student body.
The transition to online courses is a massive undertaking for the University. However, for students, this upheaval involves the additional stress of adapting to a new and unfamiliar environment away from the University and without its many resources. For some, this simply entails moving into a comfortable living situation. For others, this means months without a reliable source of income, housing or internet access.
This is particularly true of students residing in more rural areas of Virginia, where reliable broadband access is scarce. For classes that rely primarily on participation through live Zoom discussions, which require a fast internet connection, students connecting from rural areas are automatically placed at a significant disadvantage. Making matters worse, community resources that would normally serve to alleviate these issues, such as libraries, are largely unavailable as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
It is important to acknowledge that the University is taking steps to achieve equitable solutions, such as providing travel assistance and technology to low-income students. However, these efforts are severely undermined by the University’s decision to offer the option to receive letter grades. It is highly inequitable to offer students who are in a comfortable living situation an opportunity to gain an unfair advantage while leaving behind those who are not in the same position due to geographic or socio-economic factors beyond their control.
Moreover, messages from individual schools within the University have made it abundantly clear that courses taken under CR/NC will not be regarded in the same light as courses taken with a letter grade. For example, the McIntire School of Commerce, which requires an extensive application for undergraduate admission, recently published a blog post that set forth recommendations on which grading system applicants should select. Although the post claims that courses taken under CR/NC will be “fairly considered,” it also explicitly states “grades provide more insight than credit/no credit.” For Commerce applicants who need to use the CR/NC option for any reason, the decision not to take the course for a letter grade might nonetheless inherently place them at a substantial disadvantage upon review of their application.
Students are also placed at a disadvantage under the current system in comparison to their peers at comparable academic institutions. For example, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill recently announced that it would allow students until August to decide whether or not to take a class for a letter grade. The University should recognize that final grades can change dramatically during the final exam period, as many courses place a substantial emphasis on the outcome of the final exam. By forcing students to decide their grading preference prior to understanding their true standing in the course, the University is putting its own students at a disadvantage in graduate program admissions and employment opportunities alike. In mandating a CR/NC system, the University removes the need for students to make this choice entirely, substituting it with a more equitable path forward.
Still, opponents of a universal CR/NC system maintain that a CR/NC system invalidates the hard work of students this past semester and that letter grades may be necessary for prerequisite courses to graduate programs. However, given that every student is now facing a dramatically different set of irreversible circumstances than when the semester began, it would be unjust to allow some students to benefit from letter grades while leaving behind underserved populations. In terms of graduate admissions, by eliminating the option for letter grades, students are unlikely to be penalized if they were not given a choice.
As an institution that claims to strive toward the ideal of being both “Great and Good,” the University must strike a unique balance between excellence and equity. As such, University leaders should look to reexamine their positions on the grading of undergraduate coursework and think critically about whether or not the current CR/NC policy is truly “good” for the community.
Neil Kothari is an Opinion Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Cavalier Daily. Columns represent the views of the authors alone.