Addressing academic inequity at MIT through grade transparency
Students must be informed to protect their financial and emotional stability
Let us be clear. We are living in the midst of a global pandemic. We are facing possibly the worst economic crisis in a century, political strife like never before, and never-ending isolation. It’s no surprise, then, that we are in the midst of what many students both on and off campus have heralded as the most difficult semester they have ever had to endure at MIT. To put it frankly, the past two semesters have not been even remotely fun. And now, with campus mental health issues reaching a concerning peak and MIT lacking resources to help students cope, many of us are counting down the seconds until this semester ends. In this past year, while managing MIT’s already rigorous workload, we have had to apply to fellowships, graduate school, and jobs in a time of economic disaster. However, as much as COVID-19 and its externalities have paved the way for a semester of tremendous difficulty, it has given all of us a chance to truly reflect on how we can make MIT a more inclusive and equitable institution. One persistent issue that has come under a critical lens in the wake of this transformation is MIT’s lack of grade transparency.
Grade transparency has been a serious student concern for decades and profoundly affects equity within higher education at MIT. Allowing students to know where they stand in their classes, where they may be going wrong, and how they can improve their performance is crucial to their learning process. One of the initial reactions we have received in our attempts to begin this conversation has been a fear that MIT students will become overly concerned with their grades instead of focusing on the learning process. However, this argument ignores just how important grades are as a measure of academic understanding and as a pathway to postgraduate opportunities. Now more than ever, good grades are a necessity for many postgraduate opportunities, whether it be graduate school or employment in any industry. To say that students are “too concerned” with their grades ignores the context of an academic system that places a disproportionate weight on grades and other academic performance measures.
Grade transparency is also inherently an issue of equity — a standard MIT often struggles to achieve across its diverse student population. Failing a course, besides being hurtful to one’s self-esteem and feeding into imposter syndrome, can spell disaster for students in lower income brackets. Oftentimes, students need to complete their degree by a concrete date due to limited funds available for schooling. Unexpectedly failing a course can thus unfairly cause low-income students to delay vital employment, fall deeper into debt, or possibly not graduate at all. Knowing upfront whether one is slated to fail a course and how much one needs to improve on major assignments or exams would thus alleviate the drastic dichotomy of grade impacts on students of differing financial situations.
What we are asking for is a simple safety net. We are not impinging upon professors’ right to determine A/B/C cutoffs, nor are we pushing for grade inflation. We are not complaining about our GPAs, nor are we arguing with professors. We just ask that students be told how much better they need to do to prevent failure (by contextualizing grades on major assignments and exams) and whether they are on track to fail a course by drop date. We want students to be able to make informed decisions about their registration and not be blindsided by a misunderstanding that could upend their financial, economic, or emotional stability.
Unfortunately, current regulations at MIT do not encourage grade transparency and often stifle dialogue between students and their professors regarding grades and grading policies. In writing this op-ed, we hope to utilize this platform to make MIT’s policies better for students and faculty alike. In the past three weeks, we have seen an unprecedented amount of student support for these changes in regulations, as observed by the grade transparency petition reaching over 1,000 signatures from undergraduates, undergraduate organizations, and recent alumni. Students have powerfully opted to use their voices to propose changes that they believe will make MIT a more equitable and accessible place, and now we hope that faculty will do their part by making these policies a reality.
The full policy proposal can be found online.
The authors of this article are members of the Undergraduate Association’s Committee on Education.