COVID-19 dealt a blow to the California State University system that was felt by faculty and students alike. When students began to drop out or take a year off because of the pandemic for mental health reasons or family obligations, the university system panicked, mostly because it’s been working to build up its graduation rate, especially among its students of color and lower-income students. While it looks to bring its hard-earned graduation rate up to 70% by 2025, it is looking at ways that it can help its less fortunate students to succeed. Some of the more controversial ways to do this include dropping grades of Ds and Fs altogether, or even having professors continue to remake their classes so they’re easier for students to pass. Examining these more controversial routes, it is important to consider what the ramifications of such implementations might mean for students overall.
While the potential dropping of low grades seems like it could boost student morale and prevent them from dropping out due to low grades, there is something to be said for the lessons that failure can teach a student. This is not to say that professors reserve the right to make classes so challenging that their courses maintain high failure rates. Rather, it means that if a student does poorly in a course, it offers them the opportunity to rethink what they may have done wrong and where they can improve in order to do better next time. Or it could be a learning moment where they realize that they may not have the specific set of skills that is required for the major they initially wanted to pursue and instead give another major a try where they may find more success because it correlates better with their set of skills. About one-third of students change their majors already; to simply not offer the chance to fail and possibly find a new route to succeed, students will be placed at a disadvantage. Furthermore, it is important to note that a four-year degree simply isn’t for everyone. While there might not necessarily be the oversaturation of degrees in the job market like people think there is, you can still get a job and make a living without a degree. It is possible that experiencing a failure or even multiple failures might allow a person to come to terms with the fact that they have a skill set that is not optimized in academia.
Furthermore, forcing faculty to completely remake their classes to be easier is not the way to go either. San Francisco State University put in this request to faculty to help bolster pass rates. While a good grade in a class can boost student morale and decrease the chance of dropping out, there is something to be said for a class having a level of difficulty so that it is intellectually challenging. To redesign courses so that they’re easier is not necessarily the right plan of action. A better idea would be to not put such a heavy emphasis on the grades in the class; for example, having quizzes be worth 40% of the grade so that if a student does not do well on one, they will struggle to get their grade up for the rest of the class. Instead, professors would be wise to focus more on teaching students in an engaging manner that is not so grade focused.
If such a thing were to be implemented, students may be more likely to learn and absorb material when they aren’t agonizing over the grades they get, which makes their education even more valuable. This doesn’t necessarily mean that grades should go completely out the window, but it does mean that professors can focus more on teaching, students can focus more on learning and everyone benefits in the long run. Essentially, the chance for failure should still exist to motivate students to the best of their abilities, but grades should not be the be all end all of a college student’s existence if universities want to boost graduation rates and offer a better quality education to their students. Indeed, some of the reformed classes at SFSU stated that the classes didn’t lose their rigor. The refocusing of the course on the material instead of how students were graded boosted student retention and motivation, which is proof enough that this could be applied in colleges across California and even America to boost student morale.
However, the professors’ perspectives on the matter is easily important to consider. Lecturers already feel obligated to give some students As that they didn’t earn in order to increase graduation rates. But failure is still often earned; not attending class and skipping assignments is a surefire way to fail, but some students who professors no longer want to deal with may get passed. It’s a difficult balance to navigate, but what is most important to extract from this is that the push for graduation is not what universities should be so focused on. Instead, it should be giving students an education they will retain, rather than simply As that were not earned and, in turn, inhibiting students from applying their experiences once they enter the job market.
Reforming classes to help students is a very great way to go, but to remove all chances for failure is not. Students cannot appreciate success unless they experience some level of failure. Universities should instead focus their efforts on providing more office hours and tutoring resources to students who might need it, possibly following the example of UC Riverside, which offers vast amounts of academic resources for struggling students. Removing any chance for failure is not the route to success, and if universities want to boost graduation rates, they should not be doing it falsely with unearned As and no chance to fail. Instead, crafting education that is not so grade central will produce students who can face failure but who also retain what they are taught, which will push them toward success better than any lack of Ds or Fs ever could.