Pass/No Credit Policies and Perceptions Vary Widely Among Claremont Colleges

A post-it note directs students to the pass/no credit forms in the Pitzer Registrar in Fletcher Hall. (Adela Pfaff • The Student Life)

As the deadline to change the grading basis of classes passed during the last few weeks, discussion regarding the pass/fail option has begun as students on different campuses consider their options.

Each of the 5Cs have varying approaches to pass/fail; even the terminology differs from school to school, though the concept remains the same. The option is termed "pass/no credit" at Pomona College and Pitzer College, "pass/fail" at Harvey Mudd College and Scripps College, and "credit/no credit" at Claremont McKenna College.

Scripps, Pitzer, and CMC limit students to one pass/fail option per semester. Scripps and CMC also limits students to a maximum of four pass/fail classes that can count toward graduation credits.

At Pomona, first-years and sophomores are limited to three pass/no credit courses per year, while juniors and seniors may take unlimited pass/no credit options outside their major.

At Pomona, Scripps, and Pitzer, first-year seminars or their equivalent cannot be taken for pass/no credit, though there have been debates about this among the faculty.

Nigel Boyle, the vice president for academic affairs at Pitzer, said that when the grading basis for first-year seminars was voted on, "a majority [of the faculty] thought students would take the class more seriously if it was graded.” However, some faculty support a change to pass/no credit “so that students are encouraged to be less grade-focused,” Boyle said.

Ace Elliott PZ '19 wrote in a message to TSL that she has felt supported by students and faculty when taking courses pass/no credit.

“I’d say that the culture at Pitzer is pretty reaffirming of students’ needs,” Elliott wrote. “I think there’s a positive culture around P/NC because everyone understands that we’re just people, not robotic machines. Sometimes you realize that you’re in too deep with a hard class, or sometimes you may be going through a hard time yourself, and people recognize those challenges as valid."

At Harvey Mudd, all first-years are required to take their courses as pass/fail during their first semester. Harvey Mudd Associate Dean for Academic Affairs Lori Bassman wrote in an email to TSL that this policy complements faculty’s attitude to “regularly encourage students to take a class pass/fail when they have that option.”

After the first semester, however, students can only take one course pass/fail per semester, but only one of those courses per year can be from one department, Bassman wrote. Even then, the percentage of students who opt to take a course pass/fail in any given semester ranges from 15 to 20.

“I definitely enjoyed pass/fail,” Jessica Wang HM '18 wrote in a message to TSL. “I think I appreciated it the most when I looked at my transcript." She said Harvey Mudd has a saying of “pass/fail frosh” to refer to the first-years’ manageable workload.

Regarding different perception of pass/fail at the separate campuses, Wang speculated that perhaps Harvey Mudd students use the option frequently “because HMC students first of all realize how hard the classes are.”

She also said frequency of use depends on one's major.

“Usually we take humanities pass/fail because everything else is a major requirement, so we kinda understand we are doing that so we can make more time for the ‘serious’ classes,” Wang wrote.

In comparison, only about two percent of Pomona and Scripps students elect to take courses pass/no credit every semester. This occurs despite the lack of regulations around P/NC for upperclassmen at Pomona, which serve to encourage students to explore classes beyond their major once GEs are generally fulfilled.

“In my own experience as a faculty member, I was relatively agnostic about the P/NC option because it simply did not come up often,” Audrey Bilger, the vice president for academic affairs at Pomona, wrote in an email to TSL. “Students tend to want grades."

Anais Gonzalez Nyberg PO '20 said there's a social stigma at Pomona around pass/no credit.

Gonzalez Nyberg said that “the perception is that if I pass/no credit it means I’m failing my course. People see it as an excuse to not do the work.” As such, students may want to avoid being associated with a label.

She explained that the small number of students who use the option turns others away, perpetuating a cycle.

“People don’t do it enough here, and so people don’t talk about it enough,” she said.

Gonzalez Nyberg encouraged open dialogue to increase comfort in using the pass/no credit option, and said “there are specific reasons why measures like these are in place.”

Bilger also reaffirmed the value of the option.

“I believe that having the option to take a course without being graded is important in a liberal arts college context,” Bilger wrote.