Op-ed: Northeastern should implement universal pass/fail


Illustration by Edith Olmstead

The Northeastern administration has not implemented a pass/fail system this semester.

Edith Olmsted, contributor

Universal opt-in pass/fail is the correction to NUflex’s failures. 

Pass/fail, the system by which students can forgo a formal letter grade and either pass or fail a class, is just as necessary now as it was when Northeastern offered it in the spring semester. The problems of the spring still remain in the fall, and for many, these problems have only worsened. The NUflex system, which was fully implemented this fall, created many issues for students that affected their GPA and general class performance, preventing them from achieving their full academic capabilities. 

First, students who are not on campus may find difficulty accessing resources that are traditionally available, thus impacting their grade. Some of these campus amenities include access to stable fast internet or desktop computers installed with expensive software. For many, recreating these conditions at home is not financially possible. As a result, many will struggle through the semester without the resources they need. This adversely impacts students’ class participation, capacity to focus without a quiet study area and their ability to meet deadlines. 

A decline in students’ mental health can also lead to academic failures. Most students agree that classes this semester have been isolating, stressful and increasingly difficult. The social aspect of college classes is completely lost by remote learning, leaving many without support systems to fall back on. It is easier than ever to fall behind in class, and more difficult than ever to communicate with professors and teaching assistants for help.

For students with anxiety, attention and depression disorders, isolation can be entirely debilitating, leading to a loss of focus and motivation, among other issues. This will affect class performance greatly and decrease students’ ability to complete coursework. 

Because these issues are unique conditions of the pandemic, not based on academic capabilities, the radical redistribution of grades which pass/fail provides is necessary. But not just any pass/fail system implementing universal opt-in pass/fail will be most effective for NU students.

Unlike other pass/fail systems, a universal opt-in pass/fail system would mean that students would be able to opt-in for pass/fail for any number of their classes. Other universities nationwide have implemented a similar system for this semester that is mandated for all students, but this system would give students more freedom to choose. For Northeastern students that would mean that they could take all their fall semester classes pass/fail if they wanted to, whereas the university normally only allows students to take one. For this reason, it is the most equitable grading system option. 

This system would help to alleviate the academic stress on students who are struggling in their courses this semester, so that they can focus on their responsibilities outside of school, including their mental health and physical wellbeing, as well as any job they may have to support themselves during this financial draining and destabilizing time.

A universal opt-in pass/fail system would also help to remove the stigma from taking advantage of this system. If more classes are available to be taken pass/fail, the decision to opt-in will not be a sign of laziness or being a bad student, but rather a widespread response to the pandemic; systemic, rather than agentic choice. 

While we hoped the fall semester would be evidence that our school, our country, could adapt to the pandemic, that was not necessarily the case. Student cases continue to increase as the country heads into the worst period of the COVID-19 pandemic we have seen yet. Whatever we have been doing to keep ourselves safe has not been working. It’s time to accept that we simply have not gotten our act together.

Here is where I need you. Northeastern University’s Young Democratic Socialist Association, or YDSA, is leading a campaign to get the administration to implement a universal opt-in pass/fail system for the fall semester. This would help Northeastern’s student body immensely by giving every student across all colleges the ability to take any number of their classes pass/fail and extend the deadline to decide to Dec. 9. 

YDSA’s legislation was unanimously passed by the Student Government Association. Northeastern’s administration, however, still has no plans to enact this academic protection for its students. Now is the time to pressure our deans and specifically Provost David Madigan to support universal pass/fail. An email template, a call guide, as well as a petition you can sign, are all located here

To be sure, pass/fail can be problematic when it comes to scholarships and future applications. But the legislation written by Northeastern University’s YDSA, and passed by the Student Government Association this fall, assures that taking a course pass/fail would not affect (1) a student’s overall GPA, (2) their Dean’s List consideration or (3) their scholarships from Northeastern. This could protect students applying for graduate or medical school in the future. 

It is important to empathize with the experiences of those who are struggling on our campus and around the world. This is the most dangerous and isolating semester we have ever faced. Due to privilege and circumstance, some are able to hold their heads above water, but many are struggling. We can build the support system that so many of us need this semester. Let’s fight for pass/fail.

Edith Olmsted is a fourth-year politics, philosophy and economics major. She can be reached at [email protected].

Op-ed was updated Friday, Dec. 4 at 5:22 p.m. regarding YDSA’s pass/fail proposal.