Western Oregon University's Grading System Overhaul: Striking a Balance Between Student Success and Academic Rigor


In an effort to boost student retention rates and promote academic equity, Western Oregon University has decided to revamp its grading system.

Starting this fall, the university will eliminate D's and F's from its grading scale, replacing them with "no credit" (NC) for students who fail courses. While the university argues that this change will enhance student success, critics question whether it inadvertently weakens the rigor of a college degree and diminishes its value.

Western Oregon University's Grading System Overhaul: Striking a Balance Between Student Success and Academic Rigor
(Photo : UNSPLASH / Ben Mullins)

Shifting Grading Paradigm

The move by Western Oregon University reflects a broader trend in higher education, with an increasing number of institutions exploring or implementing alternative grading systems. The aim is to create more inclusive and supportive learning environments, particularly for students facing challenges that may impact their academic performance.

However, not everyone supports this shift. Critics, including some academics and consultants, argue that while the intentions behind the new grading system are commendable, it may compromise the integrity of a college degree. There are concerns that as the focus on maximizing retention and degree attainment grows, the definition of success might be diluted, and the value of a degree might be diminished.

READ ALSO: Grade Manipulation Scandal Rocks Spelman College

Psychological Impact of Grades

Western Oregon's decision to adopt the "no credit" model stems from an examination of student retention rates. Provost Jose Coll identified a psychological influence tied to grades, with failing students more likely to drop out compared to those receiving a "satisfactory" or "no credit" mark. The hope is that this change will reduce barriers, particularly for first-generation and returning adult learners, ultimately raising the overall retention rate to 80 percent.

Academic Rigor vs. Student Success

The debate surrounding alternative grading systems revolves around striking a balance between maintaining academic rigor and fostering student success. Western Oregon's provost, Coll, argues that the new model increases rigor, as students are now required to earn a grade of D or better to progress in their courses. However, critics, including Mark Horowitz from Seton Hall University, express concerns that the desire to maximize retention may dilute the value of a college degree.

Grades and Student Outcomes

The psychological impact of grades on student outcomes is a central aspect of this discussion. Western Oregon's move aims to alleviate the negative impact of failing grades on students' overall well-being and academic journey. By replacing D's and F's with "no credit," the university believes it is sending a different signal-one that is less discouraging and allows students to recover from setbacks.

Alternative Grading Models in Higher Ed

Western Oregon University is not alone in its exploration of alternative grading models. Institutions like Brown University have implemented alternative grading structures for years, and the University of California, Irvine, actively promotes new grading models that offer flexibility and customization for students. While these models may enhance inclusivity, critics argue that they could inadvertently contribute to grade inflation and undermine the traditional markers of academic achievement.

Balancing Inclusivity and Rigor

The challenge for higher education institutions lies in striking a balance between creating inclusive learning environments and upholding the academic rigor that ensures the value of a college degree. As Western Oregon moves forward with its grading overhaul, the transparency of the new system will be under scrutiny. Critics argue that evaluating transcripts may become more complex, while proponents believe the change will empower students to choose their learning paths.

The debate over alternative grading systems underscores the evolving landscape of higher education and the ongoing quest for strategies that foster student success without compromising academic standards. As Western Oregon University embarks on this grading overhaul, the impact on student outcomes, the perceived value of a degree, and the overall integrity of the academic experience will be closely monitored. The outcome of this experiment may influence other institutions grappling with similar questions of inclusivity and academic rigor in the pursuit of higher education excellence.

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