Stanford should offer optional letter grades for Fall 2020 and beyond

Opinion by Nadia Jo
June 16, 2020, 9:14 p.m.

On May 28, the Faculty Senate announced that the universal Satisfactory/No Credit (S/NC) policy implemented in Spring 2019-20 will not continue into future quarters. All Summer 2020 courses currently follow the “regular” policy of letter grades. However, the grading basis in the 2020-21 academic year remains uncertain, as the Provost and Faculty Senate have not stated that they will keep letter grades regardless of how COVID-19 progresses. 

Based on the administration’s announcement, however, it seems unlikely that we will stay with universal S/NC in Fall 2020 and beyond. Harvard University announced on June 2 that they will return to letter grades in Fall 2020, implying they will keep letter grades no matter how COVID-19 develops in the future. If the activity of peer institutions is any indication, there will be no universal S/NC in the fall.

Nonetheless, this issue is worth revisiting. Now that most Stanford undergraduate students have experienced a fully online spring quarter, I would like to explore why the administration might choose letter grade options over universal S/NC. 

Universal S/NC was necessary in Spring 2020 for the sudden shift to remote learning, resulting in a very short adjustment period for students and teaching staff. However, teaching staff can carefully craft new syllabi over the course of three months that best fit a remote or hybrid learning environment. Returning students and teaching staff already experienced one quarter of remote learning, so students will be better informed when choosing between CR/NC and letter grades for each course. 

My arguments below only apply to returning students. People have already suggested that universities should require universal S/NC for all first-year students because it is unreasonable to expect them to simultaneously adjust to a college environment and juggle letter grades during a pandemic, and I would support that decision.

First, I will explain my proposal for all returning students to be graded on a recommended credit/no credit (CR/NC) basis with letter grade options. In the second half of this piece, I will discuss the drawbacks of the universal S/NC grading basis. 

Proposal: Recommended CR/NC with letter grade options

Prior to the start of Spring 2020, the Faculty Senate considered three options for the grading basis: 1) Universal S/NC; 2) Choosing between letter and CR/NC for each course; 3) and Universal A+/A/NC. 

The ASSU Execs wrote that they did not support an Option 2 because “any policy that is optional will inevitably end up disproportionately benefiting students who are experiencing relative privilege during spring quarter.” But it is possible to appreciate the educational barriers many students face during COVID-19, while still supporting some form of letter grades. Several students, including FLI students, at Stanford’s peer institutions argued that policies similar to universal S/NC will actually harm students with educational barriers. I would like to find a solution that ensures equity for the most vulnerable students and also preserves students’ ability to choose letter grades. 

I propose that all returning students be graded on a recommended credit/no credit (CR/NC) basis with letter grade options. My proposal means that the University will place a notation on student transcripts in Fall 2020 and beyond indicating that the university strongly urged all students to take each course CR/NC, but students were allowed to opt into letter grades. This system would still allow students to count all “S” and “CR” grades to fulfill general education and departmental major requirements without exceeding limits usually set in place. 

This notation is compelling because it emphasizes that the administration views CR/NC as the norm and that letter grades are the exception. A university endorsement is powerful; Stanford will “place a notation on student transcripts indicating that emergency grading was in effect for Spring Quarter 2019-20” in order to explain the universal S/NC basis. This explanation urges everyone who assesses these transcripts – whether it be employers or universities – to understand that the university believed this decision was the best. By making CR/NC the standard and making letter grades the opt-in basis in Fall 2020 and beyond, the administration can protect students learning in difficult circumstances.

Recommended CR/NC acknowledges that we aren’t able to decide on a grading basis right now, but it gives each of us agency to choose later on. This spring, I had a 16-hour time difference from Pacific Time, and I attended lectures between 2:30-3:50am. I was constantly sleep deprived. Yet, I am advocating for letter grades because very few of us can anticipate what our learning environment will be like in Fall 2020. The administration has not yet made detailed announcements about the year’s structure, teaching format, and who’s allowed on campus when – and all of these factors are subject to change depending on how COVID-19 develops. It’s unreasonable to decide on universal S/NC again, three months before the start of the 2020-21 year, when we lack so much crucial information. 

Recommended CR/NC appropriately adjusts expectations about course material mastery during COVID-19 and also gives all students the opportunity to choose between letter grades and CR/NC. Universal S/NC only accomplishes the first goal. 

Virtual classes, difficult housing and financial challenges, personal and family health and emotional stress will burden some Stanford students as long as COVID-19 persists. No grading policy can adequately fix these issues – not even universal S/NC. Universal S/NC simply guarantees equal outcomes on a transcript (assuming that most students will receive “Satisfactory” grades); it cannot equip all students with equal resources to succeed. Many FLI students face educational barriers with complex causes. Measures that directly help students overcome educational barriers include housing some students on campus, waiving expected work-study contributions, and offering airplane tickets to and from campus. However, a grading policy cannot help overcome educational barriers. It can only be used to express the administration’s expectations about how well students should master course material. 

Students may worry that the mere existence of letter grade options will make CR/NC seem like a sign of “slacking” and not pushing oneself hard enough. Under normal circumstances, employers and graduate schools might think that students choose CR/NC to lower the stakes for academic achievement. However, when seen through the context of COVID-19 and a university-endorsed transcript notation, the transcripts will make it absolutely clear that CR/NC is not a sign of someone slacking; rather, CR/NC was what Stanford expected and urged students to choose. 

Drawbacks of Universal S/NC

S/NC negatively impacts long-term academic plans. Before the spring, students argued that universal S/NC harms students who want to attend graduate school and apply for jobs that look for high GPAs. Stanford and peer institutions responded that one term of S/NC will not be viewed unfavorably because it is a small portion of one’s undergraduate education. However, two or more quarters of universal S/NC start to emerge as a significant gap in transcripts. 

Fall 2020 will set a precedent for how Stanford adjusts its academic policies from now until the end of the COVID-19 crisis. People supported universal S/NC by saying that it was a temporary policy for an unusual quarter. However, if Stanford requires universal S/NC until we return to full face-to-face learning, students might have letter grades for an entire school year missing. Universal S/NC already forced students to make drastic changes to their long-term academic plans. The University cannot keep forcing students to change their plans on employment, graduate school, leave of absence and planned graduation quarter by mandating universal S/NC again. 

S/NC also erases the difference between Stanford and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). One of the key differences between Stanford and virtual learning websites like Coursera, edX and Khan Academy is that Stanford students receive letter grades. Letter grades from academic institutions like Stanford certify that students learned the course material and provide an informative assessment of student performances on a detailed scale, rather than the dichotomy of Satisfactory/No Credit. MOOCs can provide certificates for course completion, but these certificates do not specify the level of content mastery; you either earn a certificate or don’t. By opting for universal S/NC again, Stanford would resemble MOOCs more and more, categorizing student performances into binary outcomes with little description. 

Universal S/NC harms Stanford families who pay any portion of the tuition. It’s true that Stanford families who pay any part of the tuition are probably not low-income. Nevertheless, they should not have to pay regular tuition for a diminished college experience. Given that many students take out loans and pay for portions of the tuition themselves, universal S/NC shortchanges those students even further. 

There is almost no chance of Stanford lowering tuition for the 2020-21 academic year. Stanford announced that tuition will not be reduced in Spring 2020 knowing that 1,789 community members signed a petition calling for reduced tuition. Families and students paid full tuition this spring hoping that this situation would not repeat in the future. However, if Stanford chooses universal S/NC until COVID-19 is completely under control, students will be paying for a lower-quality learning experience while the primary measurable outcome of courses – grades – are taken away. Some families already refused to support students in Spring 2020 because it was an S/NC quarter, forcing them to take a quarter off. It is unfair to continue forcing students to alter their long-term academic plans.

The Provost and Faculty Senate should absolutely lower the stakes for academic achievement during COVID-19 in order to cater to various student circumstances. Recommended CR/NC allows the administration to support students and offer letter grade options at the same time. Through this grading basis, Stanford can maximize the number of students who are satisfied with grading options during COVID-19 while remaining flexible and generous with regards to expectations for academic achievement. 

Contact Nadia Jo at nejo ‘at’

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Nadia Jo ’24 is an Editorial Board Member for Vol. 263. She was a former Desk Editor of Music in Vol 259 & 258. She loves all visual and performing arts, the NBA, and fine dining.

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