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Harvard Kennedy School Switches to Default Satisfactory-Unsatisfactory Grading

Harvard Kennedy School will grade spring classes on a satisfactory-unsatisfactory basis as a default option.
Harvard Kennedy School will grade spring classes on a satisfactory-unsatisfactory basis as a default option. By Ryan N. Gajarawala

Harvard Kennedy School will switch to a default satisfactory-unsatisfactory grading policy, Kennedy School Dean Douglas W. Elmendorf announced in an email to the school’s students, faculty, staff, and fellows last week.

The Kennedy School will give satisfactory grades to students who earn a D or higher in elective courses and a B- or higher in required and core classes. Students have until April 24, during the penultimate week before classes end, to opt out of the satisfactory-unsatisfactory grading system and receive letter grades instead.

Other Harvard schools have also recently altered their grading policies in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has displaced most students from campus and forced the University to transition to online classes. Earlier this month, Harvard Law School announced it would shift to universal credit-fail grading, while last week, Harvard College switched to a mandatory “emergency” satisfactory-unsatisfactory system.

The school made the decision in part out of concern that remote learning would be “challenging for many students,” Elmendorf wrote in the email. But he also acknowledged that preserving the option to receive letter grades would be beneficial for students who need those grades to “satisfy various commitments” such as fellowships or military service — or who simply prefer a “more traditional evaluation of their work.”

Kennedy School student Diego A. Garcia Blum wrote in an email that some students still harbor concerns about equity in the face of online classes under the new grading system.

“Students could feel pressure to stay in the graded system despite having hard situations at home. This could take a toll on their responsibilities to their loved ones and their mental health,” he wrote. “Students applying to PhD and civil service jobs who are facing difficulties could be at a disadvantage by showing SAT/UNSAT grades compared to another student in a more comfortable situation who chooses to report grades.”

Garcia Blum added that he feels the issue is a “complicated” one, though he believes the school is “employing a smart behavioral strategy” to address concerns about students feeling pressured to continue receiving letter grades by making the system opt-out rather than opt-in.

Kennedy School student body president Charlene A. Wang said a universal pass-fail system has particularly tricky implications for international students, which led her to support the opt-out system.

“I think about like 40 percent of our student body is international students, so I think there was just a further concern that, you know, it might be the norm in the United States for a bunch of universities to go pass-fail, but it's unclear if that's the case abroad,” she said.

Wang added she has heard some students express “relief” about the new system of grading.

“My sense right now, given the relief that I've heard, is that most students will go ahead and take the default option,” she said. “I think there are still people who care a lot about their grades, so I could imagine some students opting to take the grades.”

—Staff writer Sixiao Yu can be reached at

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