‘The Six’ ask colleges for clarity, flexibility on grades, credit transfer

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As colleges and universities set policies on how they will handle grades and college credits resulting from program changes prompted by the current health crisis, the nation’s six major higher education organizations — including the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) — have drafted “common principles” that institutions should keep in mind when developing those policies.

“The Six” have outlined eight principles to guide colleges on addressing grades and credits, noting that higher education institutions should address these issues as soon as possible. 

“It is important that students have clarity and confidence that their educational pathway will not be hindered by policies and practices that may not apply to the current circumstances,” said AACC President and CEO Walter Bumphus. “Community colleges serve more than 40 percent of the nation’s undergraduates and millions of students who are working toward transfer. It is imperative that students have clear guidance and that policy interventions do not inadvertently penalize them for a situation that is beyond their control.”

Community colleges have been working to implement policies that account for the disruption to classes because of the pandemic. Many classes were moved to an online or distance learning format. For some students and colleges, the move to virtual classes was easy. For others, it presents challenges. For all cases, the common principles outline flexibility, understanding and compassion when it comes to evaluating and accepting credits for transfer.

“Community colleges serve the majority of underrepresented students in the country,” Bumphus added. “The majority of our students work and so many have been displaced in both school and work because of COVID-19. It is our hope that these principles will provide guidance to ensure that these extraordinary circumstances are taken into consideration when policies are adopted with regard to awarding credit and transcript evaluations.”

Anxious students

Many two-year colleges students are anxious over myriad issues regarding their grades and course credits, including how four-year institutions will handle their credits if they transfer there. Some four-year institutions have been very accepting and have addressed those concerns. For example, the Virginia Community College System (VCCS) last month announced that its 23 colleges would use pass/non-pass instead of letter grades for the current term. VCCS worked with the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, which is the commonwealth’s coordinating body for higher education, to ensure the policy will not affect students’ ability to transfer to a public state university.

The policy is currently more of an exception than the norm. A number of public and private institutions across the country have previously indicated that they plan to stick to their policies on grading and credit transfer. Many community college leaders have advocated for some temporary exemptions to help their students — many of whom are balancing family lives, have recently lost their jobs and are struggling with things like internet access in order to participate in their now-remote classes. Not provide such flexibility could derail the students’ from achieving their college goals, according to advocates. 

Encouraging flexibility

In an April 16 letter to their member colleges, the six higher education organizations noted that many of their members are making changes to grading policies, and even providing flexibility to add/drop deadlines and exams. 

“Institutions are already deciding how best to manage credit within their own educational contexts and that is wholly appropriate,” they said. “One size does not fit all and that is not and should not be our aspiration. Similarly, we do not believe that there is one approach or one system that should apply to how institutions evaluate and accept credits when students seek to transfer between institutions, seek approval for non-traditional coursework, or apply to graduate and professional programs.”

However, the organizations said there is a set of common principles that institutions should keep in mind when developing policies regarding credit acceptance. 

“These principles seek to model the integrity, flexibility, understanding, and compassion that represent the very best of our diverse institutions and our commitment to our students and the communities we serve,” the letter said. “The principles should also reflect an expectation that all institutions see the current situation as a unique one that may not be well served by policies and practices that seemed appropriate even just weeks ago.”

The principles are (as written in the letter):

  • Institutional policies and the evaluation of grades and credit should recognize the extraordinary burden placed on students during this time. Even in the best of cases, student dislocation and the need to change the very basic patterns of life impose challenges on our students that may have an impact their performance.
  • Institutional policies and practices should recognize that traditional inequities are exacerbated in the current crisis and that “equal” treatment of students’ transcripts is unlikely to result in “equitable” outcomes.
  • Institutional policies and practices should, therefore, be as holistic as possible, taking into account the range of situational and behavioral circumstances in which our students find themselves.
  • Institutional policies should, wherever practicable, provide flexibility in the timely reporting of grades and other markers of achievement, understanding that the dislocations mentioned above are also present for faculty, staff, and others.
  • Institutional policies should aim for complete transparency. The circumstances under which credits and or grades are accepted and not accepted should be clear and publicly stated in accessible, specific, and easy to understand terms. The rationale for these policies should be made equally clear and transparent.
  • This transparency should extend inside as well as outside the institution. Institutional policies that respond to this unprecedented and unique situation should be broadly communicated and disseminated within institutions. At a time when telework has become the norm, it is in the collective best interest of higher education that each student-facing employee understands new and existing policies. 
  • Institutional decision-making regarding individual students should be swift and definitive. Students and their families need clear, timely information on which to make decisions.
  • Institutions should clarify their policies as soon as possible. Students and families are making decisions now about, for example, whether to take courses pass/fail, whether to enroll in non-traditional coursework to fill gaps in their curricula, and whether to accept partial credit for coursework already underway. Uncertainty can only exacerbate the stress students are experiencing and could, in the end, harm students who make decisions today that might not serve them tomorrow.

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