Yale students demand a “universal pass” for spring semester; U. Texas students want As or A-minuses for everyone

March 25, 2020 • 9:30 am

As you probably know, because of coronavirus most American colleges are shut down for the spring semester, with classes being taught remotely, through online lectures, tests, and assignments.  But let us us not imagine that the students are actually willing to work during these troubled times. No, they are taking advantage of the pandemic to call for grading systems that reward them without having to do any work at all!

Granted, not all students have computers at home, but I suspect all of them have access to a computer somewhere, so they’d surely be able to have the opportunity for online classes. And I’m even more sure that universities would create special provisions for students who don’t have computers.

Nevertheless, regardless of circumstances, this article from the Yale Daily News (click on screenshot) reports that students are demanding the “universal pass”. Instead of just a pass/fail grading system, which some colleges are going to, they want the right to get a pass without doing any work at all. (Other colleges are giving students a choice between “pass/fail” (which some don’t like because it makes them look lazy) or getting regular letter grades (in the U.S., A, B, C, D, or F).

Read and weep:

An excerpt:

Citing concerns over equity as Yale moves to online classes for the rest of spring semester, a coalition of undergraduates has urged the University to give grades on a “universal pass” basis — without any possibility of failure for every course this semester.

Days after University President Peter Salovey’s community-wide email announcing the move to online classes, Yale community members have raised questions over the University’s ability to ensure equity among students who are now expected to attend virtual lectures and seminars from their own homes. According to Eileen Huang ’22, requiring undergraduates — many burdened by sickness, hectic home lives or living thousands of miles away from the University — to devote the same level of attention and focus to their classes as they would in the Elm City seems unfair.

The coalition is advocating for a system where students would receive credit for every class — including distributional requirements — and receive a “P” instead of a letter grade on their transcripts.

“Universal pass is just a very fair grading system,” Huang said. “People come from different circumstances.”

Fair? It’s not even a “grading system.” Nobody gets “graded” in the sense of being compared to others. And of course students on campus come from different circumstances as well. Earlier, when the campus closed, Yale administrators decided to offer everyone the “Credit/D/Fail” system for students in all courses, a system that was already available for Yale students in up to four of their courses:

  • Any course in Yale College may be taken Credit/D/Fail rather than for a letter grade. If you take a course Credit/D/Fail, a grade of C– or above will be converted on your transcript to “CR.” Grades of D+, D, D–, or F will appear on the transcript as reported by the instructor.
  • You may count up to four courses taken Credit/D/Fail toward the bachelor’s degree, and you may take as many as two courses Credit/D/Fail in a single term.

Right now, because of the pandemic’s vacating of Yale, you can still get regular grades from online courses at Yale, but you can also opt for all of your courses to be graded under the Credit/D/Fail option. Notice, though that even with the latter choice you can still get a D or an F. The students don’t want that.

No, the students want to pass every course, and without having to do any work. And if that’s the case, why bother to work? Sure, there will be those diligent students who actually want to learn something, and will work regardless of grades, but do you really think that giving every Yale student an automatic “pass”, without even the option of grades, is going to spur effort? (I’ve just learned that students at Cornell are demanding the same thing, in a request for what they call The Big Red Pass.) That’s like eliminating traffic laws and expecting people to stop at all the red lights.

The Yale administration is pondering this ridiculous demand. Remember, it’s Yale, Jake! That means there’s a strong likelihood the administration will cave.

But wait! There’s more! If you thought that the demand of Yale students is unwarranted coddling, look at what University of Texas students are demanding in a Change.org petition (click on screenshot):

Yep, that’s right; read and weep even harder: everybody gets an A (or an A-, which I suppose is the modern equivalent of “fail”).

This petition is set to urge the administration to change the grading system this semester to a Double-A Policy, meaning all students will receive an A/A- in each class. Due to the inequities other proposed changes in grading policy, such as Universal Pass and Optional Pass/Fail, could precipitate Double-A is the best approach. [FAQ regarding Double-A Policy can be accessed here]

And if you click on the link, you’ll see lots of justification for why this is the best solution, and how it differs from the Yale demands for Universal Pass:

How does Double A differ from Universal Pass?


While Universal Pass would enable educational equity by allowing all students to pass courses universally across the University, and would still include annotated transcripts and faculty recommender guidelines, it may pose concerns for students who require grades for this semester or who could benefit from a grade towards their GPA. Some students require graded courses for scholarship eligibility, ending academic probation, graduate schools, professional certifications, and more. Some students also planned courses to obtain certain GPA thresholds due to previous hardships. While we are lobbying administration to adjust probation thresholds, Double A goes one step further by giving students grades while remaining equitable.

Well, if they require grades, why would they require the highest grade? Why not just grade them as usual, or have the option of choosing Pass/Fail versus regular grades? The idea that because students require grades for their GPA (grade point average) or other things is no way a justification for giving them the highest possible grade. This system is not “equitable” except in the sense of the Dodo Bird Verdict: “All must have prizes.”

I’m sorry, but I see these demands as nothing more than a bunch of students trying to use the current crisis to get either the highest grades possible, or to get A’s without really earning them. Imagine getting the highest possible grade without having to do a lick of work!

29 thoughts on “Yale students demand a “universal pass” for spring semester; U. Texas students want As or A-minuses for everyone

  1. I will quibble with one point. If you don’t have a computer at home then under conditions of a public health lockdown you by definition do not have access to one either even if you normally would.

      1. My elementary-school son has daily assignments from his teacher, which he receives, does, and turns in on his iPad.

        I’m not too hot on the idea of this under regular circumstances, preferring he get face-to-face interactions and pen-and-paper skills. But for self-quarantine situations? It’s a godsend.

        Now, I get that his anecdotal story doesn’t mean every class can be taught that way, but in the spirit of not making perfect the enemy of the good, it seems to me that many classes could be taught reasonably well this way. And that wealthy schools like Yale should have no problem equipping their much-smaller-student-body with the needed hardware and software compared to an underfunded, overcrowded county elementary school system.

    1. There are a number of situations where a student just can’t realistically “work from home.” I also think the university forcing the students to spend an extra semester at school is somewhat unrealistic, and possibly unfair to poorer students. But having said that, I can think of many options which I’d personally consider better than ‘auto pass without work,’ albeit none of these are ideal and they all have problems. Some ideas:

      -Refund course cost

      -Buy students without a computer a laptop. (Mine cost $600 and works just fine for work. You really only need bells and whistles on a gaming machine.) Note that while this option sounds expensive, it’s probably cheaper for a University than the “refund the course” option above.

      -Let them “test out” at a future date.

      -Reduce the university graduation requirement by 15 credits to reflect the lost semester.

      -Reduce the department graduation requirement by 3-4 credits to account for lost lab sections of courses.


      Transparency is key. As an employer, I’d much rather see a transcript with 15 less credits on it or a chemist who didn’t take the 1-credit lab section of organic chem, vs. a transcript where I can’t rely on the grades to be reflective of their ability.

  2. ‘Universal Pass’ strikes me as a logical extension of trophies for showing up, which for Yalies may have been the norm when they were younger.

  3. Why not just hand out diplomas at Yale and call it good. Long as the money has been paid. Then of course hand out a job as well.

  4. Why stop there? Let’s just hand everyone a degree and skip the whole tedious and unfair course requirements, which clearly discriminate against those averse to coursework.

    What these students don’t understand is that a degree only has value if it represents knowledge ad skills gained. Otherwise it’s just a nicely embossed piece of paper.

    We provided students who didn’t have one with a laptop or chromebook for the remainder of the semester.

  5. I have to say that I am a bit impressed with the students cajones. I mean, just think – what would it take for you to so publicly and so thoroughly expose your inner moron? They really think that this is a reasonable and just thing to do and they’re not afraid to let you know they think so. I think only Bozo the clown could be so fearless.

  6. I’m not siding with the students, but if not all students have computers at home, and they’re social distancing or quarantined, then how do they have access to a computer?

    1. They should urgently buy a laptop (second-hand if needed). They could ask for a discount from the tuition fee because of this. Paying such fees and not able to afford a laptop… come on! My kids (16 and 13) are required to attend online school classes and submit work; indeed, a smart phone could also do for those without computers.

  7. What seems to me the obvious solution – flag any grade given this semester/quarter (effectively labeling it as being for a student whose on-campus learning was affected by COVID-19 closure, and ignoring it in calculating GPA); and then adopt some reasonable grading practice, or non-grading practice as the case may be – doesn’t even seem to be being considered.

  8. One could give grades equal to a student’s average grade in previous semesters. Good students get a good grade, not so good students get a not so good grade. Nice and simple.

  9. I see little difference between the students’ demands and the corporate bailouts demanded by Big Oil, airlines such as Boeing, the cruise ship industry, etc. or should that be et al, since corporations are people.

  10. It does not escape notice that the petitions justify their claims by using the magic words “equitable” and “inequitable”. I am only surprised that ritual use of “inclusion” was absent. As for the most magical word of all, “Diversity”, it is presumably absent because the students are dead-set against diversity in the category of grades.

  11. I saw someone, somewhere, suggesting all grades be pass/fail for the semester. That seems reasonable to me.

    1. It’s not fair to good students who work hard to get a good GPA, on which scholarships, internships and grad school admission depend.

    2. I don’t disagree with pass/fail so long as there’s a note in the transcript that all students went to that system for one semester because of the pandemic.

      AND. . . there has to be a possibility of failing.

  12. I teach at a big public research university in Canada (much larger than Yale or Chicago, a little smaller than Texas). Our spring semester starts first week of January so we are much farther along than most US universities. Today the university made these changes: students can withdraw from any course up to the last day of classes in mid-April; students can review their grades after the semester and choose to change any passing grade (A,B,C,D) to a Pass (presumably those who earn a C or D might do this); the P grade will fulfill degree requirements and will count as a prerequisite for subsequent courses; and F grades will not count toward calculating GPA. These seem like a good compromise: instructors aren’t pressured to assign inflated grades, and students can choose the combination of grades that seems best to them.

  13. “Universal pass is just a very fair grading system,” Huang said. “People come from different circumstances.”

    If equity is the goal, universal failure would be equally as fair. Mr. Huang might try that one out for size.

  14. My university has adopted a policy that most course assessment will go ahead, but be switched either to online exams or coursework.

    One module will I think work OK as an online exam, but I’m thinking of doing another as coursework, asking for a report on selected statistical aspects of the covid 19 pandemic.

  15. At my university we are also now teaching all classes fully online. I have not seen issues with students not having sufficient internet access, so I know nothing of that. But there is no such nonsense like the situations described above.
    They have the pass/fail option like they always have, and students have been reminded they have that option. But where having certain GPAs for certain classes are concerned, no one I know is agitating for an ‘everyone gets prizes’ system.
    I am fairly proud of my students here.

    Not looking forward to a full summer semester of this situation. But many are far worse off than I.

  16. The facade of higher education is really starting to wear thin.

    Many students already see their end of the bargain of learning as stretching no further than paying the university and showing up to the odd class.

    Universities must however demonstrate that at least some acquisition of knowledge is taking place, otherwise how could they continue to demand such a premium for their services?

    If employers start to see that very little learning is actually going on at many of these brick and mortar institutions, the opportunity is ripe for alternative, faster, much cheaper ways to demonstrate that a person is employable.

    This flood of cash through student loans into higher education needs to be justified sooner rather than later. I hope that higher education can start to reverse this trend of colleges becoming more like destination vacations rather than rigorous centers of learning.

  17. Anyone remember Prof. Jan Van Brunvand’s (U Utah) 8-10 books on urban legends, starting back in the 80’s? There was a whole sub-genre of college “urban” legends, and a widespread one was that if your college room-mate committed suicide, you got automatic A’s for the semester. Was not true, but was widely believed, apparently.

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