For the last two weeks I have been having conversations with students who are struggling. This is typical this time of year, when the realities of the midterm grades sink in and the time to final projects and exams grows short. As in prior years, a persistent theme emerged – work responsibilities and student responsibilities were in competition. Eating trumps homework (as does having a home) so work is winning. In every case the students had fallen behind in a number of classes and it was unclear whether they could catch up. In every case, I did not have a good list of solutions for them.
When this happens, I go the typical list of options. We talk about support services (tutoring and counseling). When students get to this point, it is usually counseling that they need. They are overwhelmed, not incapable of college-level work. We talk about the strategic use of withdrawing from courses, although I emphasize that this should be a last resort. Our students have until well after midterms to withdraw from any course. I always encourage them to wait until the last possible day to do so, just in case things turn around. We talk about worst case scenarios like university suspension for not meeting the minimum academic standard (a 2.0 GPA) and how to recover if that happens (our Fresh Start Policy). This is not fun for students or for me. I am striving for kindness and support, with a healthy dose of reality.
But in the most recent conversations two policies struck me as worthy of my attention. One is within the campus control, the other needs the focus of the Federal Government.
The first thing that strikes me as very problematic is that students are opting for the withdraw option too often. This is a natural decision when students see an F in their future. It shouldn’t be so natural for all of the other grades. Unless a student is in a major that requires a minimum grade in a course, it is better to take the D and keep the credit. But the related hit to the GPA often drives students to the W option. Unfortunately, this practice puts students behind in accumulated credits which can impact opportunities to register. The later registration date (dates are based on credits earned) makes it less likely that they will find the courses they need for the next semester, putting them out of sequence and farther behind. If Ws are opted for too often, then those same students might fail to meet the pace standard (number of credits accumulated per year), and this will impact financial aid.
So, how do we fix this? One place I think we might start is with our pass/fail policy. As it stands right now, students must declare pass/fail well before midterms. I see no good reason for this. Why not align it with the last day to withdraw? This gives students time to see if they can succeed, attempting to earn a strong grade from day one, but having an out if they cannot do so. Students who need a specific grade in a critical prerequisite course won’t be able to use the pass/fail option, but in the early years of college, when this is option can be most urgent, that only includes a few courses. Pass/fail doesn’t affect the GPA, so even if the student earns a D, the pass is a win.
That part is pretty uncontroversial (I think), but the next part is more contentious. The current policy states that only electives may be taken pass/fail. Why not allow two general education courses to qualify as well? General education, by its very design, asks students to take classes in topics that they are not necessarily attracted to or comfortable with. By definition it focuses on breadth and tasks students with grappling with ideas and processes that are not typical of their major discipline. I think this is a wonderful thing, but I know that those courses outside of a student’s comfort zone are not always places where they are able to earn their best grades. What would be the harm in letting a few of these be pass/fail?
I know some will say that students won’t try as hard if they have this option. I’m not sure that is true, but with the extended time until decision-making, maybe a few of those math-phobic or writing-phobic or creativity-phobic students will wait and see. Maybe they’ll find out they are better at a subject than they realized and save that pass/fail for something else. In the meantime, perhaps it will keep a few more students from (over)using the W option. Maybe, just maybe it will help our students.
The second thing, which really must be addressed in state and federal government regulations, is the way we have designed financial aid, bundled tuition, and privileged the students who can work less and go to school more. In my conversations with students who have been overwhelmed with work and school demands, it is clear to me that they would have done better if they had taken 3-4 courses instead of 5. But at three, they have a reduced financial aid package, so that won’t work. (They are working; they need funding). At four classes (12 credits), they get the financial aid package, but end up penalized for not keeping pace for a four-year degree. In addition, they are likely to have to pay for summer courses or an additional semester. This means that my neediest students will end up paying more for college. This seems like a policy in need of an anti-racist policy review.
Why anti-racist? Well, students with high financial need are not necessarily students of color but they are disproportionately so. Looking at how these policies replicate structural inequities is important to understanding their severity. When we look at the ways in which our bundling and pacing rules disadvantage students with fewer resources, we see a structural problem that replicates biases in higher education overall. Students with less money, and who therefore must work a lot, are conscious of the bargain of the bundle (12-18 credits are one price) and don’t want to miss out on that perk. But the workload is too much, and some end up failing, withdrawing, and sometimes academically dismissed. Then they have to re-take courses to get back on track. Ironically, they end up paying more for college than if they had just taken fewer courses in the first place. If they do, they know they will pay more for college, and it feels like an unfair bargain. The cycle continues.
The bundling and financial aid problems are wrapped up in so many interwoven regulations that it is very hard to untangle. I am looking to Secretary of Education, Dr. Miguel Cardona to help us with this one. We can do a little at the state level, but the bigger picture is federal, and this is urgent.
We often build policies with unanticipated consequences. Our pass-fail policy wasn’t meant to encourage students to withdraw from courses, but I think it inadvertently does. Certainly, we wanted financial-aid to help the neediest students, not encourage them to do more and succeed less. The existing policies were developed to help, not harm. Nevertheless, now that we see the consequences that we had not anticipated, perhaps we can take steps to improve them. I think we can.