Georgia college students find allies for pass/fail in Legislature

University System of Georgia and Regents ignore students seeking a fairer playing field

Georgia Tech is investigating whether students in physics classes consulted an online tutoring site to get answers to problems on their finals. Meanwhile, the University of Georgia is offering more than 2,000 students the choice of replacing their grade on the Spanish final with one from an earlier exam after the online administration was beset by technical glitches.

Yet, the University System of Georgia contends the overnight conversion of 26 campuses to distance learning due to COVID-19 went smoothly and there's no reason to allow a pass/fail option, as hundreds of campuses have done, including Vanderbilt, Duke, MIT and most of the Ivies.

Among the top rated 146 national public universities as ranked by U.S. News, all but four have some form of a pass/fail option. Three of those four are Georgia Tech, UGA and Georgia State.

USG has refused to concede that YouTube videos, PowerPoints and Zoom classes put significant learning burdens on students and fall short of in-person instruction.

"Many students feel they cannot do online learning," said University of West Georgia student Bhavin Patel, president of the College Democrats of Georgia. "Some simply can't teach themselves."

Since March, Patel and other students have beseeched the chancellor and the Board of Regents, the appointed board that oversees higher education in Georgia, to allow public campuses and law schools to decide whether to give students a choice between a letter grade or a pass/fail grade.

Rural Georgians returned home from college to unreliable or non-existent internet and parked outside fast-food restaurants and libraries past midnight to tap into their Wi-Fi to complete online classes. This should not have surprised state leaders; Brian Kemp made connectivity a platform in his campaign for governor, lamenting that 25% of rural residents lacked access to high-speed internet.

Alanna Pierce, a UGA third-year law student, said USG’s advice to students to simply rise to the challenge failed to consider that not all students arrived home from their campuses to reliable internet, financial security and comfortable stability. Some returned to sick family members, chaotic conditions and desperate financial straits that required they work or take care of younger siblings while parents worked.

“USG keeps saying all students are in the same boat. But some of us are in yachts. Some of us are in dinghies. We are asking that we once again have a level playing field,” said Pierce.

After two Zoom sessions with the organizers of USG Students 4 Grade Reform, a coalition representing more than 15,000 students from across USG schools, some state legislators support a retroactive policy establishing a pass/fail option.

The pass/fail campaign has even united the Georgia Association of College Republicans and College Democrats of Georgia, both of which had representatives on a Zoom call last week with 14 lawmakers.

“It really means a lot when two organizations that don’t agree on much can come together on something,” said University of Georgia student Bryson Henriott of the College Republicans. “We have students from every USG university, every economic background, every race, every gender, every political party — we have it all because we understand this is a central issue affecting every student. “

“Growing up, I always had unreliable internet,” said Henriott, who is from Toombs County. “When I got to UGA, I forgot how bad it was until I went home. We don’t have internet at our house so I drive to my grandparents’ house. I have to break the shelter-in-place order just to complete assignments. When my grandparents’ internet isn’t working, I sit in the Chick-fil-A parking lot and do my schoolwork and listen to lectures.”

In a joint letter to the Regents, the College Republicans and Democrats cited a Goldwater Scholar who waited eight hours for lectures to download, forcing him to drop the class, and a student torn from her schoolwork to care for one family member with cancer and another with COVID-19.

In its response to student pleas, USG offered pablum about “reaching higher” and excuses that don’t hold up under scrutiny, including that letters grades are required to maintain HOPE Scholarship eligibility.

“Every argument USG has presented is counter intuitive,” said Henriott. “They are basically saying reach higher and maintain academic integrity. But, by not doing pass/fail, we are essentially diminishing our academic integrity. And, if we are being honest, most of the Regents have no idea what students are going through. None of them has reached out to us to see what we are facing. Most of them do not really know what is going on at the universities and colleges. They were business owners appointed by the governor and, quite frankly, they don’t understand the scope and horrible consequences that can come from their decision.”

Many Georgia residents who attend private colleges in the state also receive HOPE, yet the Student Finance Commission has assured those students, including at Emory and Agnes Scott, which both embraced a pass/fail option, that they can still qualify. HOPE and Zell Miller Scholarship GPAs have always accommodated pass/fail grades. Letter grades of A, B, C, D, or F are included in the HOPE GPA calculation. If a student receives a "P" on their transcript, it will not be included in the HOPE GPA calculation, meaning it has no impact, positive or negative, on the student's HOPE GPA.

Some colleges are giving students to the start of the fall semester to decide whether they want to change a course grade to pass/fail, so USG can still reverse its decision. At the University of North Carolina, for example, students have until Aug. 7 to elect to put a course on or take a course off of pass/fail for the spring 2020 semester.

Leading the legislative push is state Rep. David Wilkerson, D-Powder Springs. Skeptical colleagues have suggested to him that pass/fail permits students to slack off and that kids should "pull themselves by their bootstraps," an admonishment Wilkerson notes is not being applied to the businesses in the state seeking federal handouts to cope with the pandemic.

“Look at what the governor has talked about — Georgians first. That shouldn’t just be Georgia businesses. That should be Georgia students,” said Wilkerson.

Wilkerson’s own work-at home as a CPA has included computer snafus that require negotiating with clients on deadlines and projects. “We jump in and help each other out,” he said. “We realize there are challenges. We are not going to blame each other and tell each other to work harder.

“When I look at the students that have contacted us, Democrats, Republicans, non-partisans, just students trying to do the right thing, I feel great about where our state is headed and where our country is headed,” said Wilkerson. “It has been a shining example of what we want to see from our future leaders.”

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