Virus ‘Stress’ Prompts Students to Demand Easy A’s at Harvard

America’s students will get a lot of pass/fail grades during the coronavirus pandemic. The University of Pennsylvania, Lehigh University, and Haverford College have allowed students to choose whether to be graded pass/fail for classes this semester. Duke University announced, “all spring courses at the university will default to a satisfactory/unsatisfactory grade scheme.” The Massachusetts Institute of Technology will require students to take their classes pass/fail. More than 500 Harvard students have signed a petition by Harvard for All calling for all grades to be either A or A-minus.

That might be reasonable if the colleges had good reasons, such as the difficulty for colleges to set up distance learning, or for colleges to learn how to use distance learning software. All too often, they cite bad reasons instead. Administrators express concern, and students complain about stress and equity. Grades cause students stress. Some students don’t have perfect access to computers, so no student should be graded. Our snowflakes and our social justice warriors, heavily overlapping categories, naturally want to eliminate all grades.

Students who were doing well in class aren’t happy. Why should their A work be turned into pass/fail against their will? They’re correct, of course, that worry about stress and equity always penalizes students with the merit and the character to do well faced with any challenge.

What they don’t realize is how little the coronavirus changes matters. In practice, our colleges were already close to pass/fail.

Grade inflation has steadily worsened at America’s colleges for two generations. As Tom Lindsay noted in Forbes, “in 1969, only 7 percent of students at two- and four-year colleges reported that their grade point average was A-minus or higher. Yet in 2009, 41 percent of students reported as same.” As have become the most commonly awarded grades. Grade inflation is even worse in the Ivy League than at the community colleges: the median grade at Harvard is an A-minus. The imperative of educational equity has already led many colleges to stop using standardized tests for admissions—and for the College Board to attempt to replace merit-based testing with “adversity scores.” The snowflake activists and the grade-grubbers are using the coronavirus to make our de facto educational regime official: You breathe, you get an A.

Education always ought to be a rigorous test of students’ ability and character. But the coronavirus strengthens that argument rather than weakens it. A major justification for rigorous tests in school, whether in K-12 or in higher education, was always that life is a rigorous test, and we want our children to be prepared to pass whatever problems life throws at us.

The coronavirus substantiates that justification in spades. What is the coronavirus but an extremely severe test? – a test directed not only to our doctors and our nurses and our policemen but also to our entire leadership class. Many of them are failing—but at least they were selected from that previous generation of students that were sifted by the remnants of a rigorous higher education system, which still paid more than lip service to the ideals of meritocracy.

Today’s college students will be tomorrow’s leaders who must respond to the next pandemic out of China. Our colleges want to make sure that they will face that crisis without ever having faced any severe test. If the Harvard students who signed the Harvard for All petition have their way, tomorrow’s leaders will think that just showing up means you get an A.

Pandemics demand more than pass/fail. Better for our colleges to grade rigorously now if we don’t want the bodies to pile up tomorrow.

David Randall

David Randall

David Randall is Director of Research at the National Association of Scholars.

6 thoughts on “Virus ‘Stress’ Prompts Students to Demand Easy A’s at Harvard

  1. “our entire leadership class. Many of them are failing—but at least they were selected from that previous generation of students that were sifted by the remnants of a rigorous higher education system”

    If the leaders picked by the last generation are failing, that indicates some significant issues with the judgement of the last generation.

    I suppose suffering under the numpty of one’s own choosing is preferable to a long and prosperous life under the hated oppressor?

  2. I look at this very differently — the students paid for in-person lectures and instruction, and the only appropriate grade to give under these circumstances is “Incomplete” because the instruction is incomplete.

    If I’ve contracted with someone to paint my house and they had to stop and leave it half unpainted because of the Wuhan virus, I still expect them to paint the rest later. Why should the expectations of college students be any different?!?

    1. Dr. Ed: the “contract” is to give the remote instruction. The students are free to accept or decline the contract, i.e. pay the tuition and take the class remotely. Some in fact are doing that. Most, I imagine, want to get on with their lives and education. Not put off graduation for another year, for example, or delay taking needed courses for a year.

      Of course, the colleges expect to get paid for the remote courses — getting paid is the alternative to shutting down completely, perhaps for good. This thing is probably going to kill a lot of colleges as it is.

      1. Jonathan, the students already paid the tuition — for an in person class.
        Now the institutions are turning around and instead offering a cheaper on-line education, one which these students could have purchased elsewhere for far less.

        We aren’t talking about them signing up for it, a distinction you fail to make. And you will find far fewer of them writing a check this fall for the experience of sitting home in their childhood bedroom with a laptop…

        And you speak of colleges shutting down for good as a bad thing. I’m not so sure it is, particularly if the same colleges are willing to screw their students for the institution’s benefit. The days of students being a fungible resource to subsidize overpaid faculty and administrators are over, and I think that will turn out to be a good thing….

  3. I look forward to having David Randall pass the test of telling me how to do “remote” tests without massive cheating. Perhaps it can be done; I haven’t figured it out yet.

    Believe me, learning to do “remote” teaching under duress is very challenging and stressful. I imagine it must be so for the students as well.

    As it happens, the grade distribution in the class I am trying to teach will be nowhere near all A’s, or an A- average. It will be far, far lower than that, as usual.

    Whether the students will actually learn enough, as demonstrated by test performance, to truly merit even the usual grade distribution, I don’t know. I am doubtful.

    I actually think this fear is the impetus behind the pass/no pass grading, whether optional or not. It probably isn’t necessary.

    1. Regardless of what happens, or what their grades are, the Class of 2020 will be out in the workplace at some point — and when employers realize that they have missed a full quarter of their senior year but aren’t any MORE stupid than last year’s graduates, there are going to be some serious questions asked about the value of higher education in general.

      Particularly about paying a premium for college degrees.

      And all it’s going to take is a few more big employers to say that they don’t care if one has a degree or not for the whole house of cards to come tumbling down. Notwithstanding the lofty ideals many proclaim, the *only* reason that most kids are in college is for “the piece of paper” and if employers stop caring about it, they will stop trying to get it….

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