A case for mandatory pass/fail: Why Williams made the right call

Halle Schweizer

As President Maud S. Mandel noted in her email yesterday, this situation is unprecedented for all of us. When it comes to deciding which grading system is best, students have generally formed opinions based on their own experiences. To avoid generalizations, I’ll give a brief explanation of where I’m coming from: I live with my mom, who has an autoimmune disease which causes her muscles to attack themselves, thus weakening them, and making it difficult to do daily tasks (such as walking up stairs, carrying groceries, standing up after sitting down and even chewing/swallowing food). When I’m at Williams, I really worry about her. When I’m at home, I worry even more. It would be really challenging for me to maintain the Williams rigor at home, where I am concerned not only about my mom’s current illness but also about her increased vulnerability to COVID-19 (due to her compromised immune system). My dad passed away during my sophomore year, so I am hypersensitive to my mom’s health. Given what we know about the coronavirus, I’m scared as hell for my mom. Her body is no longer equipped to fight a disease like that. I know that I have the tools to grapple with that anxiety, but it would still be really challenging to compete academically in my setting.    

I imagine that many students, in their own environments, are facing concerns about how they will manage the Williams workload on top of the responsibilities and challenges that come with living at home. I am writing this op-ed to explain why the mandatory pass/fail is the most equitable grading option, as it will help alleviate many students’ concerns about how they’re supposed to manage the Williams workload at home, where they may struggle with an abundance of stress that is particular to their households.  

As a JA (shoutout to Sage DC!), I think I can speak on behalf of all of us when I say that we are “trained” before our frosh arrive on how to respond to the varying contexts that our frosh will be coming from. We are expected to act with compassion and empathy. JAs are told that to best support our frosh, we must be sensitive to their diverse backgrounds. I chose to be a JA because those values are important to me, and I believe those values apply to this conversation, as well. If Williams College truly wants to be sensitive to the diverse backgrounds of their students, or in this case the diverse home environments, then the College has made the right call by choosing mandatory pass/fail to level the playing field. 

I understand that a natural response to my concerns would be the optional pass/fail, giving those students whose homes are not conducive to learning the chance to pass/fail classes of their choice, while allowing other students the chance to improve their GPAs. I understand the benefits of this system, as that would be my second choice. However, my general rule of thumb is that institutions should make choices that prevent people from falling behind, rather than choices that help people pull ahead. In the mandatory pass/fail, virtually no one will worsen their GPA, and that is why I think it is the most equitable option. Regardless of their capacities to perform well at home, students are treated similarly on their transcripts this semester.  

In the optional pass/fail scenario, of course many students would benefit, but those who benefit would likely be those who are already advantaged to begin with. Students who do live in a healthy, functional, safe, stable or otherwise comfortable household may be less likely to pass/fail. Students who do not may be more likely to pass/fail because they cannot juggle home and Williams. I am one of those students. However, I would feel pressure to choose the traditional grading system, rather than pass/fail, for two reasons: First, I’d expect choosing pass/fail to have a negative stigma attached to it. Second, I would fear employers or graduate schools looking at my transcript and wondering why I opted into pass/fail this semester if many of my peers stuck to the traditional grading system. I’m afraid that the choice to pass/fail my classes may reflect poorly on my worth ethic. Even though the pass/fail system would work better for me, if given the option, I would feel tempted to act against my best interest in order to compete with my peers and land a post-grad job. And I’m afraid that other students would do the same, and that is why the optional pass/fail system is not fair. 

I don’t think that the possibility of boosting some students’ GPA compensates for the adjacent consequence of inducing unnecessary stress on other students. No, the mandatory pass/fail will not help anyone (in terms of GPA), but I believe it’s better than hurting any students whose worlds have already been flipped upside down. For example, as a low-income student, I understand the additional stress that under-resourced students take on when they go home. Worrying about how the bills will get paid is a lot different when you’re watching your mom emotionally sort through bills at the kitchen table than when you’re living in the Purple Bubble, no longer proximate to the stress your family is facing at home. This doesn’t even account for homeless students or those who are returning to unsafe environments. Being home is different for all students, and it’s assumedly an inconvenience for everyone. But for a lot of Williams students, being home is not just “different”; it’s incredibly stressful. Therefore, it would be unfair to expect (or tempt) students to rise to the challenge of boosting their GPA, which would require additional work and stress, by finding the mental and emotional capacity to perform well in class.  

I don’t want to give the impression that I think the mandatory pass/fail is the perfect scenario… I know it’s not. But in this moment, the College made the right choice to make this semester as equitable as possible for all Ephs. Of course, there is no perfect solution, but the College has met its obligation to choose a system that prioritizes equity over rigor. 

Halle Schweizer ’21 is an economics major from Bourbonnais, Ill.