Home Homepage Feature Story Pass-Fail: A Hollow Gesture from Montclair State

Pass-Fail: A Hollow Gesture from Montclair State

by Ben Caplan

Being an editor for The Montclarion since 2018, I have been privy to a myriad of early decisions and announcements from Montclair State University. I have also gotten a sneak peek of how the administration works to address students in times of trouble.

When “The Student Voice of Montclair State” publishes an article expressing concern, university officials typically take notice and consider their options to remedy the situation. For example, in October of 2019, writer Carley Campbell wrote an opinion piece about the size limits of fish tanks residents are allowed to have in their dorms. Not long after the piece garnered some traction, an amendment to the school’s policy was made in favor of Campbell’s plea.

More recently, Casey Masterson, the feature editor for The Montclarion, wrote an opinion piece on the obvious flaws of Hawk Check. Top university administrators agreed to look into these flaws and shortly thereafter created new, extremely controversial measures to keep students safe, which have since come under intense scrutiny from campus residents.

Last spring, President Susan Cole and her team took their time, while carefully reviewing the need for an optional pass-fail system amid the early stages of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. In the midst of a powder keg of confusion, ignorance, fear, illness and chaos, the Montclair State administration delivered, assisting students when they needed help the most. With the exception of nursing classes, graduate courses and several others, a majority of students were given the ability to either keep their letter grades or choose the pass-fail option for any and all classes.

Now the conclusion of the fall 2020 semester quickly approaches, and the pressure to understand and meet the needs of their students has returned.

As my colleague, Brielle E. Wyka, The Montclarion’s video editor, expressed in an opinion article earlier this month, “grades should never take precedence over actual learning in higher education, but it is especially despicable to hold them in any regard during such unprecedented and mishandled circumstances.”

On Friday, Nov. 20, an email was sent to all undergraduate students, detailing the decision to bring back the pass-fail option.

Montclair State has decided to give its students the option of using the pass-fail again. According to the email’s forwarding web page, undergraduate students can use pass-fail for only one course. This seems fair, but not when taking the other suspiciously specific parameters into account.

Eligibility includes “only those courses that are free electives in the student’s program.” In other words, it is a mostly empty gesture from the school, as free electives do not necessarily count toward academic progress.

Like many higher education institutions around the country, the flailing retention rate of students has been plaguing universities since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Montclair State notwithstanding.

I am just spitballing here, but what better way is there to retain new students, who are taking mostly general education courses, than tailoring accommodations directly to said students? As an attempt to bring new students back in the spring, this makes sense. Meanwhile, the eligibility restrictions encumber the upperclassmen who are already established in their college plans and cannot easily escape.

If I were a young, naive freshman again, I would see this as a Hail Mary pass from the school. It would help to ease my GPA worries and get me excited to return for the spring semester, believing the administration has my best interests in mind.

Unfortunately, I am a senior at Montclair State, on track to graduate in May of 2021 and begin graduate school shortly thereafter. For many upperclassmen like myself, this is crunch time; we are finishing up our required courses, which puts us in a peculiar position. According to the email, many students who share a similar situation to me do not qualify for the new pass-fail option.

As a student who has been paying thousands of dollars to attend Montclair State since 2017, getting shut down by the very people who should have the best interests of the student body in mind while making such dramatic decisions feels like nothing but a huge slap in the face.

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