Opinion: CUNY Needs A Universal Pass/Fail System to Protect Vulnerable Students

Anyone proximal to New York understands how severely COVID-19, otherwise known as the coronavirus, has devastated its people. As of Sunday, March 22, nearly 11,000 New Yorkers tested positive for the illness, a dramatically greater amount than that reported a few days ago. Given that a substantial amount of people has not been tested, the gravity of the pandemic in New York City is not yet fully understood. It’s likely extremely underreported due to extortionate testing and hospitalization costs, leaving New Yorkers torn between survival and financial ruin.

 And yet CUNY students, those caught in the crosshairs of the pandemic, are not being afforded the academic safety net that they need. Unlike the many New Yorkers who can afford to remain at home with relative ease, CUNY students are among the city’s most vulnerable. Of the 22,000 CUNY students who responded to a 2018 survey, 48 percent endured food insecurity thirty days prior to the survey, 55 percent experienced housing insecurity in the year prior to the survey, and 14 percent suffered from homelessness in the same year. These struggles make CUNY students especially vulnerable during the coronavirus pandemic. CUNY schools shutting down their campuses therefore precludes these students from accessing institutional resources as New Yorkers enter a state of quarantine. CUNY should implement a universal pass/fail policy because vulnerable students’ academics will suffer without it.

Photo by Carlos Rodrigo on Unsplash

More than a dozen schools have already instituted some kind of pass/fail system so that vulnerable students are not further punished for their circumstances. At CUNY, I know people who have been laid off, do not have access to the institutional resources that they relied on, and have family members who must continue working outside to provide for their family. Offices that serve students with disabilities have gone fully online, thereby eliminating necessary testing spaces.

I am one such student. My ADHD makes it extraordinarily difficult to work at home, meaning I almost exclusively work at school. Some students’ attention issues are so significant that they must work in total silence. What’s more, my medical provider’s office is closed, and I can’t speak with my nurse practitioner until mid-April. This means I have to ration my medication with no guarantee that I will get a refill for the rest of the semester.

Students in similar situations are terrified of what a locked down New York will mean for accessing their medication. My academics suffered for a year when I lost my health insurance in Fall 2018 and even with health insurance I will still lose something I rely on to perform up to par. My situation isn’t even among the worst. How is a student with financial need who has been laid off supposed to do schoolwork? How can students with children focus on schoolwork when they must watch their kids? How is a hospitalized student meant to complete their assignments? How will a student with a loved one dying of COVID-19 or related complications concentrate on their academics? The short answer is that it will be extremely difficult, if not impossible. 

A sizable portion of students, whether because of graduate school or an effort to raise their GPAs, do not want a universal pass/fail system, however. The commonly proposed alternative is an optional pass/fail system. Although any pass/fail system is better than none, one in which students can opt in or out may cause graduate schools to look unfavorably on students who opt in leading to a multitude of students becoming punished for trying to get through the Spring 2020 semester. Some students may opt to withdraw from courses out of fear of performing poorly, as falling below 12 credits will interfere with students’ financial aid packages. Other students will remain in classes that might ruin their transcript and hinder their academic progress so that they don’t lose their financial aid. Even the existence of a fail option will harm many students, but the implementation of a pass/no record system, although ideal, is extraordinarily unlikely at CUNY.

I understand the desire to keep the grading system as it exists so students can get into graduate school or raise their GPAs. I have been there. I am still there. But if CUNY students fail to show up for our most vulnerable, how can we claim to be advocates for each other? I am not only calling on the administration to institute a universal pass/fail system, but I am also urging my peers to sign a petition that aims to provide a safety net for CUNY students. Although I support a universal pass/fail policy, I believe that any pass/fail policy is better than none at all. In a time of crisis we must protect one another. I hope we will rise to that challenge.

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