Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
August 10, 2020

Mandatory S/U grading is unfair to senior class

By BRIAN COVINGTON | April 2, 2020

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KIT/CC by SA-2.0

Covington argues that the senior class suffers from mandatory S/U, and urges Hopkins to change their policy.

Hopkins announced that all spring semester classes must be graded as Satisfactory or Unsatisfactory (S/U) on March 27. I’ve been hurt by the mandatory S/U policy. So have many-to-most other seniors. I would like the policy to include an exception for students graduating in May.

I’m planning on applying to law school in 2022, after a couple years of full-time work. Since I already took the LSAT too many times, I should be focusing on my GPA. Every time I raise my GPA by a hundredth of a point, I leapfrog over thousands of other JD applicants. Last semester, I raised my GPA by 0.02. God only knows how much scholarship money I earned with those two extra hundredths of a point. 

Last week a viral Google Doc weighed the pros and cons of three different grading policies: mandatory S/U, optional S/U and A-range grading. The Google Doc says, “One semester won’t dramatically inflate one’s GPA.” 

That’s wrong. This semester, I was pulling the best grades of my college career. If I could factor in my current grades, then I would raise my GPA by another 0.03 points.

In an email to The News-Letter, Dean Beverly Wendland said, “We do not believe that the impact of the grading policy for this one semester will have any measurable impact on career options for seniors.” 

Sadly, I disagree. If my GPA were 0.03 higher, then which other law schools would have admitted me? Which other firms would have hired me after law school? I was robbed of these opportunities only a month before graduation.

I’ve been told to ask for recommendation letters from each of my current professors, so that the professors can disclose my letter grades on my JD applications. However, that’s not possible. I’m taking some big lecture-style courses. The professors don’t know me well enough to write a letter of recommendation. 

Plus, I would be unlikely to benefit from the letters. Other schools’ admissions officers have told me that it looks bad to stuff an application with too many letters of recommendation. An overstuffed application makes you look indecisive, as if you included every possible piece of information just to avoid choosing what to cut. 

It also makes you look like you don’t know the value of time. After all, you’d be forcing the admissions officers to spend more time on your application. So, instead of adding an addendum to my application, I’d prefer to raise my GPA.

I am not the only one hurting. The entire senior class is hurting too. In fact, we were hurting even before this policy. Out of every class at Hopkins, the senior class was hit hardest by this pandemic. 

I’d like to compare the Class of 2020 to the Class of 2009. The Class of 2009 graduated into the nadir of the Great Recession. The unemployment rate had been rising since December 2007, and it peaked at 10 percent in October 2009, mere months after graduation. Several years later in 2013, the classes that graduated during the recession were still making less money than the classes that graduated years before the recession. 

It gets worse. In an academic paper, economist Lisa B. Kahn used data from the National Survey of Youth to calculate the financial effect of graduating into a lagging job market. If you graduate during a time of higher unemployment, you generally make a lower salary. These adverse financial effects persist for at least 20 years, possibly longer. 

Obviously, a successful career involves more than money, but the point remains. If you graduate into a job market with a high unemployment rate, then your career will likely suffer for several decades. 

My class is graduating into this mess. Morgan Stanley expects the spring quarter’s unemployment rate to peak at 12.8 percent. The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis has increased its estimate of the unemployment rate from 30 percent to 32.1 percent during the three days when I was drafting this article. We seniors are starting our careers with a handicap, compared to the other classes at Hopkins. Now, we’re deprived of the opportunity to raise our GPA and, thus, to improve our job prospects.

At Hopkins, the senior class is the only current class to have lived under covered grades. Now the senior class is likely the one that’s most up-in-arms about mandatory S/U. Why? A few reasons.

Under covered grades, we could uncover our grades. That is, we could obtain a transcript with our letter grades from the first semester, even if we could not factor them into our GPA. When we applied to internships, our employers often asked us to uncover our grades. Under compulsory S/U, we don’t even have any grades to uncover.

A previous op-ed urged our University’s administration to implement mandatory S/U, on the grounds that online classes are “not what we signed up for.” Well, I didn’t sign up for mandatory S/U. I signed up to get grades. My class enjoyed covered grades during our freshman fall, but we knew about covered grades before starting at Hopkins. That information was publicly available. Unlike covered grades, mandatory S/U was not part of the deal.

Admittedly, I am saying all this as someone who, fortunately, does not have any loved ones that have been diagnosed with coronavirus. So, I’ve been accused of trivializing the casualties of this virus. 

That is not my intention. Surely, losing a loved one is worse than losing a job. Still, I’d encourage my critics to read up on the fallacy of relative privation, also known as the “appeal to worse problems.” Just because worse problems exist, that’s not an excuse to dismiss the problems with mandatory S/U.

Plus, not every high-risk student wants mandatory S/U, and not every cheerleader for mandatory S/U is at high risk. While researching for this article, I spoke to some seniors whose families are struggling because of this virus. Each of them opposed mandatory S/U. They each expressed a desire to have control over their grades. They view compulsory S/U as paternalistic.

I’ve been accused of playing the victim. I disagree. I didn’t complain when our graduation was canceled. I understand the necessity for that cancellation. I didn’t complain about never being able to see some of my classmates ever again. I view our separation as a stroke of bad luck. 

But this? Mandatory S/U? I’m going to complain. Let’s call this policy what it is. It’s a well-intentioned experiment that’s failed. After all, it hurts some of the people that it was intended to help.

Dean Wendland told The News-Letter that Hopkins dealt with “necessary disruptions in the interest of keeping everyone as safe as possible.” I would characterize the new grading policy as unnecessary. Optional S/U is working well enough at our peer institutions. I contacted students at five schools with optional S/U, and every interviewee but one said that the optional S/U was popular.

Some Hopkins policies already include certain provisions specifically for people who are about to graduate. For example, students are not allowed to study abroad during their senior spring. Mandatory S/U should be one of those policies that exempts our graduating seniors.

In short, please consider making an exception for the people who will be graduating in May, because this policy is hurting us. Please.

Brian Covington is a senior double-majoring in English and Classics from St. Louis, Missouri. He is a Copy Reader for The News-Letter.

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