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Editorials

Dissent: With Pass-Fail Policy, the FAS Would Make Grades Even More Meaningless

By Tommy Barone and Max A. Palys, Crimson Opinion Writers
Dissenting Opinions: Occasionally, The Crimson Editorial Board is divided about the opinion we express in a staff editorial. In these cases, dissenting board members have the opportunity to express their opposition to staff opinion.

With GPAs higher than they’ve ever been, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences is set to consider a proposal that would doubtless send them rocketing yet higher.

Next month, the FAS will vote on a proposal to push the deadline to change the grading basis for a course to pass-fail from the fifth Monday of the semester to the 11th — or, put plainly, to ensure no Harvard student again suffers the indignity of receiving a grade below A-.

Because the Editorial Board fails today to recognize that this change would only exacerbate a grade inflation problem that has fast become a crisis, we dissent.

From the 2002-2003 school year to the 2020-2021 school year, the mean Harvard GPA increased from 3.41 to 3.80, as the proportion of A- or A grades given each year more than doubled.

This change reflects two problems. First, grades are rising. Second, as GPAs increase, they begin to press against the 4.0 maximum, clustering toward the top in a phenomenon called grade compression.

As grades inflate and compress, academic rigor and exploration suffer. When many students’ GPAs bump up against a 4.0, suddenly, a 3.7 average looks bad. An errant B gains the power to render a student subpar. In the face of such pressures, students are discouraged from taking classes in which they may receive good — but not perfect — grades.

Allowing students more time to switch to pass-fail to avoid a bad letter grade will only make things worse. By the last month of your semester, you have a much stronger sense of the grade you’ll get. If that grade isn’t very good, who in their right mind wouldn’t take the option to pass-fail the class instead?

Under the proposed policy, there would remain only three ways a student would perform poorly in a course: by exhausting their supply of pass-fail-eligible courses; by performing poorly on the final after doing well through the first 11 weeks; or by doing poorly in a class their concentration mandates they take for a grade.

None of these exceptions change the bigger picture: This change would allow many more students to opt out of bad grades, worsening grade inflation and, in turn, the many and growing disincentives to intellectual exploration at Harvard.

The current pass-fail deadline provides a sufficient amount of time — four full weeks — to feel out a course, and as the Board acknowledges, the Administrative Board accepts most petitions to change the basis of grade after the deadline anyway.

What’s more, if this proposed change increases the number of students who pass-fail courses each semester, it could impose costs on other students.

For instance, if, in a curved class, many students nearer to the bottom of the curve pass-fail toward the end of the semester, students who opt to receive a letter grade may face unexpected penalties.

Moreover, to the extent that this change causes students to pass-fail rather than receive a worse-than-hoped-for grade, it could cause employers or graduate schools to interpret a pass-fail on a student’s transcript as a poorly-veiled bad performance, harming students who decide to change their grading basis for other reasons.

Grade inflation and compression worsen with every passing year and pose a serious threat to the health of Harvard. The last thing the FAS should do now is give students another out.

Dissenting Opinions: Occasionally, The Crimson Editorial Board is divided about the opinion we express in a staff editorial. In these cases, dissenting board members have the opportunity to express their opposition to staff opinion.

Have a suggestion, question, or concern for The Crimson Editorial Board? Click here.

Max A. Palys ‘26, an Associate Editorial editor, is a double concentrator in Mathematics and East Asian Studies in Currier House. Tommy Barone ’25, a Crimson Editorial Chair, is a Social Studies concentrator in Currier House.

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