Cornell makes letter grades optional. Some students say that's not enough.

  • Cornell University offered students the option to have pass/fail grading because of the coronavirus.
  • Some students want more accommodations, and are petitioning to receive credit regardless of one’s final grade in a class.
  • A rival petition is calling for “freedom of choice” in grading decisions.

Students at Cornell University are split over calls for “universal pass equitable grading,” which would ensure all students would pass their courses and receive credit regardless of one’s final grade. 

The Cornell Daily Sun, the Cornell student newspaper, reported that some students petitioned the school to implement the mandatory pass system because of the coronavirus pandemic. Others petitioned to keep the option to choose between letter grades or pass/fail. 

"we call on the Cornell administration to prioritize educational equity, student health, and community wellbeing by adopting a Universal Pass (UP) system for Spring 2020"   

The authors of the universal pass grading petition argued that if Cornell is truly going to commit to “nondiscrimination,” the school must move to the universal pass system.

“As COVID-19 spreads through our communities, we call on the Cornell administration to prioritize educational equity, student health, and community wellbeing by adopting a Universal Pass (UP) system for Spring 2020,” the petition reads.“It is vital for us to demonstrate how graded or pass/fail online courses burden those of us who are uniquely and severely affected by these circumstances, as well as the student body as a collective.” 

They also added that an optional pass/fail system would “actively discriminate against the most marginalized students.” 

[RELATED: Prof tells students to 'stop' doing their work: 'A's for every student']

According to the petition authors, marginalized students are students who may lack internet access or who may live abroad. By choosing a pass/fail system, as opposed to granting a universal pass, organizers argue these students would be victims of a stigma which would affect graduate school admissions. 

"We think that [an opt-in option] is inequitable because the letter grade option still exists. Graduate schools and employers can still see you chose to take a class pass/fail instead of a letter grade," one universal pass/fail proponent told the student newspaper.

Addressing concerns that students may stop coursework altogether, the organizers wrote that they are “passionate about their coursework,” and that a universal pass “would encourage them to work hard.” 

“Students are more likely to retain their course material when they are not overwhelmed by the stress of the pandemic coupled with letter grades,” the petition continued. 

According to The Cornell Daily Sun, nearly 500 students had signed the universal pass petition as of Monday.  

Conversely, students petitioning for an option to choose pass/fail say that a universal move to pass/fail would “eliminate opportunities for personal growth, jeopardize the competitiveness of Cornell graduates for graduate programs and scholarships, and compromise freedom of choice for students.”

The authors of this petition argue that students are stripped of the opportunity to improve through letter grades if they are forced to move to a pass/fail system. 

“Freedom of choice of the students should guide the decision for the university policy,” the petition reads. 

[RELATED: 'No Fail Yale': Ivy League lowers academic expectations amid coronavirus]

The petition also calls for a 7-day extension for students to opt-in to the pass/fail system, which would come after final grades have been released. 

Campus Reform reached out to organizers of both petitions but received no response in time for publication. 

One higher education expert recently told Campus Reform that letter grades do have a positive impact on students' success. 

“One of the purposes of assigning letter grades and making fine distinctions...students really do want to end the semester with a 4.0 average,” Jonathan Pidluzny, director of academic affairs at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, said. “And that concern, that anxiety, that stress push them to work hard.”

“It’s not grading for the sake of putting anxiety on the student, it’s grading for the sake of creating an incentive that will lead students to work harder," Pidluzny continued, adding that switching to a pass/fail system of grading would mean students would work "a little less hard.”

National Association of Scholars President Peter Wood also reacted to Ivy League schools switching to more relaxed grading methods, particularly at Yale, which has yet to make a decision on whether it will assign traditional letter grades to every student. 

“Ivy league students in general are among the first to complain about privileged people granting themselves yet more privileges.  When students at Yale demand pass/fail options in courses in which they would normally receive grades, they are doing exactly that," Wood told Campus Reform. “It would be encouraging for the country if we saw Ivy League students accepting the challenge to do their best under trying circumstances, rather than seeking to duck the difficulties.”

Follow the author of this article on Facebook: @eduneret and Twitter: @eduneret

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Eduardo Neret
Eduardo Neret | Digital Reporter

Eduardo Neret is a digital reporter for Campus Reform. Prior to taking on his current position, Eduardo served as the Senior Florida Correspondent for Campus Reform and founded a conservative web publication where he hosted a series of interviews with notable conservative commentators and public figures. Eduardo’s work has appeared on the Fox News Channel,, The Washington Examiner, Daily Caller, The Drudge Report, The Blaze, and The Daily Wire. He most recently served as a contributor to the Red Alert Politics section of The Washington Examiner. In addition to his independent journalism, Neret also previously worked at the Department of Justice and the Fox News Channel. He has appeared on numerous radio programs and NewsMaxTV to discuss his work and comment on relevant political issues.

20 Articles by Eduardo Neret