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Many colleges and universities, after looking at the havoc the coronavirus pandemic has wreaked on student lives, have decided to offer a more forgiving grade structure. Binary grading schemes like pass/fail or satisfactory/unsatisfactory have been put in place at many institutions, sometimes after much back-and-forth. Some have made the change mandatory for all students, while others have simply expanded an existing option.

The idea behind a binary scheme during the pandemic is that it can lessen students' anxiety. It can shield those who have been enormously burdened from a fatal hit to their grade point average. Moving home, taking online classes, losing jobs or dealing with family health care can all have a profound effect on student performance.

But when a student is hoping to move on to graduate school, medical school or a four-year college, questions still abound about how a grade of "pass" is going to look to an admissions officer, or if community college courses will still transfer.

The answers aren't neat. Many institutions are altering their admissions criteria or practices. Some are trying to align with their peers. Others are going it alone.

Medical Schools

A few medical schools, which often have prerequisites for application, have given students some tricky choices. At the medical colleges of Harvard and Georgetown Universities, for example, admissions offices announced a new policy. When looking at spring 2020 grades, those colleges will now accept a "pass" for a prerequisite. But Georgetown has said that letter grades are highly encouraged if available. Harvard had similar language on its admissions site but has recently removed it. (For undergrads, Harvard has switched to mandatory binary grades, while Georgetown has moved to an optional three-tier system.)

Premed students at Duke University, which is defaulting to a binary scheme but giving the option of a letter grade, might have a tough choice to make then if they are applying to Georgetown. Taking things easy, taking a pass and using extra time to care for family or work, for example, might no longer be an safe option.

The medical school at Johns Hopkins University says it is still debating whether to accept online classes as prerequisites, as it traditionally has declined to. Prospective Hopkins students who were completing prerequisites this spring might be out of luck, or they might have to take them again.

The American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers released guidance for institutions on how to implement and mark new grading schemes on transcripts, but the association recommends keeping things limited. Binary grades should only be used if instruction is terminated before learning goals are met. If instruction just moves online, AACRAO advises no transcript notations or changes in grading.

But the guidance also raises more questions. How to deal with athlete eligibility, scholarships or academic probation? Not all those questions have been answered.

Community College Transfers

For community college students hoping to transfer, the situation depends on the state.

The Virginia Community College System has also decided to switch to binary grades this semester, although students can still request a letter grade.

"There are equity concerns," said Joe DeFilippo, academic affairs director of the State Commission for Higher Education for Virginia. "We want to make sure that students experiencing this don't get penalized when they try to transfer to four-year institutions."

DeFilippo said that before this spring, only five out of the 14 public colleges in Virginia were willing to accept a pass equivalent for transfer credit. A community college student looking to transfer might have had to retake those courses.

Now, with SCHEV's encouragement, nearly all 14 have said that they will transfer credit for a pass, in any courses taken in spring 2020, so long as the grade equates to more than a C. (The one holdout, the University of Virginia, is still in discussions, DeFilippo said).

"I think the decisions we've been talking about have been good ones. Is it a guarantee that they're going to turn out to be the perfect ones? No," he said. "No one really knows all the right things to be doing in every aspect of dealing with this current situation. There are a lot of judgment calls being made and decisions being made to help the system move along as efficiently as possible."

In other states, the process is a bit less clear. The California Community Colleges, for example, is waiving the deadline for students to choose pass/fail grades. But the California State University system has said it will give out transfer credit for a pass grade only for general education requirements and major prerequisites. Others may require a letter grade for transfer credit. The University of California system chose instead to suspend its cap on pass/fail grades for transfer students.

Belle Wheelan, president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, said that her understanding is that most four-year colleges are accepting pass/fail grades for the spring since every institution is affected. "We asked our institutions to be accepting but to make sure they have policies that explain their plan to do so," she said via email.

Graduate Schools

Only a few graduate schools have put out statements regarding admissions changes for the spring semester. UC Berkeley has said that it will make admissions decisions holistically, taking many pieces of an application into account.

"Such a review will take into account the significant disruptions of COVID-19 when reviewing students’ transcripts and other admissions materials from Spring 2020," the announcement said. "We understand that many institutions across the country instituted P/NP grading policies during that semester. Thus, we will not penalize students for the adoption of P/NP and other grading options during this unprecedented period, whether the choices were made by institutions or by individual students."

Cornell University and the University of Rochester have both announced that they would be taking newly implemented grading structures into account when making decisions.

"As admissions bodies review applications in future admissions cycles, we will respect decisions made by individual students and/or by their academic institutions with regard to the enrollment in or adoption of Satisfactory/Unsatisfactory, Pass/No Record, Credit/No Credit, Pass/Fail and other similar grading options during the pandemic disruptions," Cornell announced.

Both universities advised applicants to describe any special circumstances in their personal statements.

But Suzanne Ortega, president of the Council of Graduate Schools, believes that many grad schools are changing their practices but have not announced yet.

"The vast majority of universities are moving in the direction of something we call 'holistic admissions consideration,'" she said. "Not as many universities have issued formal statements yet, but I think its absolutely clear in the direction that universities and programs are going."

Holistic admissions review is based around the idea that no single piece of evidence by itself can say if a student is motivated or academically prepared.

"Consider a transcript in its total, be explicit about the kinds of characteristics you're looking for in applicants," Ortega said, explaining the philosophy. "Let their references know what kind of information would be helpful, and then take all those things together to make a decision."

The council has encouraged grad schools to use holistic admissions practices for a few years now, but the pandemic has brought on new motivations and new urgency.

"Students are anxious. They're concerned. They have a goal of going to graduate and professional school and in addition to all the other disruptions, they worry about how grades will be interpreted," Ortega said. "The process is already in place, it has been in place, to recognize the unique and extraordinary times we're in."

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