In Praise of F’s

Colleges and universities should not get rid of failing grades.

On January 5, 2024, Western Oregon University (WOU) announced a bold change to its grading regime: “The letter grades of D- and F” have been axed in favor of a mark of “No Credit (NC)” for undergraduates. WOU’s provost, Jose Coll, clarified that this new system will not lower the university’s academic standards but, rather, “increase retention and graduation rates.” The university will no longer “mask” students’ “demonstrated abilities” with a slew of poor marks, following the likes of Brown University and Hampshire College, which have already exchanged letter grades for alternative measures in some instances.

By removing troublesome grades, WOU’s administrators might conceivably be making a commendable decision to lower students’ anxiety. After all, if failing grades prevent students from changing majors, cause them to drop out, or lower their chances of finding a job post-graduation, would it not be reasonable to refrain from handing them out?

The fear of a failing grade has traditionally been a powerful motivator for students.The short answer: no. Simply ignoring a problem does not make it disappear. Instead of nixing the unsatisfactory grades from students’ transcripts, WOU should consider how this decision will devalue the university’s academic culture. Rigorous academic standards are a cornerstone of higher education, and the fear of receiving a failing grade has traditionally been a powerful motivator for students to put forth their best efforts. By removing the negative impact of failure from a student’s GPA, there is a risk that some students may become complacent and less driven to excel academically. This could lead to a decline in the student body’s overall academic performance and achievement.

As an undergraduate myself, I can attest to the stress and anxiety caused by potentially earning a failing grade. In our credentialist society, one’s college transcript can determine whether one gets a dream job or settles for a monotonous career one would never wish on one’s worst enemy. As cumbersome as these fears may be, students should not simply be appeased by their teachers. When they enter the professional environments their universities should be preparing them for, their bosses will not be so kind. Swaddling students in a warm bundle of academic satisfaction prevents their learning a valuable life and academic lesson: how to respond to failure.

Take the case of Evergreen State College, which implements a “narrative grading system” that substitutes traditional letter grades with an “academic statement.” The university instructs students to revise their statements throughout their college careers. Such a system flips the conventional structure of higher education by tailoring educational outcomes to what students want, not what they earn. This approach coddles students instead of challenging them to rise to meet rigorous academic standards. It robs them of the opportunity to learn resilience and perseverance in the face of failure, skills vital for success in any professional field after graduation.

By eliminating failing grades, Western Oregon University risks falling into the same trap of lowered expectations and devalued academic achievement. The traditional grading system, with its potential for failure, is a transparent measure of student performance. Replacing a failing grade with a nebulous “No Credit” designation is a form of grade inflation, through which actual academic mastery is obscured. This jeopardizes the credibility of WOU’s degrees in the eyes of employers and other educational institutions.

Instead of eliminating failing grades altogether, a more balanced approach would be to provide robust academic-support systems and resources to help struggling students succeed. Early intervention, tutoring, and academic counseling can help students overcome challenges and develop the skills they need to meet the university’s high standards.

In the end, while the intention behind WOU’s new grading policy may be well-meaning, the potential consequences of doling out academic participation trophies should give the university pause. Higher education should challenge and inspire students to reach their full potential, not shelter them from the realities of the world they are preparing to enter.

Sherman Criner is a sophomore at Duke University studying public policy, history, and political science.