Bhavsar & Jones: CT/NC Will Hurt Dartmouth's Least Privileged

Dartmouth's new policy will harm those it allegedly helps.

by Tanner Jones and Nirayudh Bhavsar | 3/30/20 2:00am

Dartmouth recently decided to suspend standard grading for the upcoming spring term and move all courses to a credit/no-credit grading system. We urge the Dartmouth administration to reverse this decision. The College’s argument is fallible, peer institutions have moved to more flexible grading systems and there will be a detrimental effect on post-graduate opportunities as a result of the new policy. 

As such, we propose that Dartmouth change to an opt-out CT/NC system, in which students have the option to take classes for a grade. 

The College argues that a mandatory CT/NC system will help students who have limited access to technology or excessive family demands at home. However, this policy change actually reflects a paternalistic stance and denies less-privileged students agency within their own educational careers. The College’s decision to deny students a choice in grading ignores those underprivileged students who would otherwise benefit from letter grades. 

The COVID-19 pandemic is not the first extenuating circumstance for many students. Consider students who work multiple campus jobs to pay tuition or struggle with their own health conditions or those of a family member. These students may have had previous terms in which their academic performance reflects their lack of privilege more than their intellectual merit. Indeed, many students may have already taken courses on a CT/NC basis — or withdrawn from courses entirely — due to non-academic, personal challenges. Because GPA is an average, a mandatory CT/NC regime magnifies each previous academic challenge.

A student’s GPA isn’t just a mark of achievement, it’s used as an absolute assessment of competency by a number of employers, fellowship programs and graduate schools. Many law schools, for example, use GPA as an effective cut-off for applications. And because there is no recourse for students to prove that their GPA would have been sufficiently high without Dartmouth's mandatory CT/NC policy, those students who don’t meet GPA cut-offs will find themselves at a disadvantage.

No transcript addendum can adjust a student's overall GPA to reflect what would have been without Dartmouth’s policy change. And moreover, with internships and research opportunities severely limited by the pandemic, GPA will be one of the few metrics graduate schools and employers have to assess Dartmouth graduates. In other words, GPA may become even more important at just the moment Dartmouth is diminishing its value.

Dartmouth’s administration argues that a mandatory approach is the only way to ensure students feel comfortable accessing the grade relief they need. However, this stigma can be better overcome through different policies. Under our proposal, the default will be CT/NC, and students will have the opportunity to opt into a system of letter grading. Additionally, the College can promise to provide an accompanying letter with each CT/NC transcript defending that student’s choice and explaining the extraneous circumstances of COVID-19. Finally, many of Dartmouth’s institutional peers — in pursuing opt-in policies — concluded that the current situation is not serious enough to prevent normal grading for the students that need it.

In fact, looking to peer institutions, it becomes clear that there is little support for a mandatory CT/NC grading scheme. Only two other Ivy League institutions  — Columbia University and Harvard College — are implementing a mandatory CT/NC system. Some may object that the term has already started. However, many top universities operate on the semester system and have recently changed their grading policies — halfway through their terms — to an optional CT/NC system. Dartmouth could just as easily change course this spring.

Ultimately, we worry that the College acted too hastily and overlooked the number of potential consequences of mandatory CT/NC grading. Without empirical evidence (the school offered no official forum to assess student circumstances), it makes most sense for Dartmouth to defer to each student’s individual choice. 

Dartmouth students pay a premium price for renowned professors to critically assess their work and assign them grades. Less privileged students in particular make significant financial sacrifices to subsidize Dartmouth degrees. Thus, we believe that undergraduate students deserve the opportunity to earn grades this spring.

Bhavsar is a member of the Class of 2022.

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