Western Oregon University Abandons Failing Grades for ‘No Credit’ System

The university said the new system will increase graduation and retention rates and encourage academic exploration without fear of negative impacts on GPA.
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Published on February 5, 2024
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  • Students can repeat courses as many times as they like. However, after two No Credit (NC) grades, advisors will work with them to determine options.
  • "Ungrading" is when colleges reject traditional grading metrics for alternative systems like Credit/No Credit or narrative evaluations.
  • Western Oregon University said it's 60% less likely to retain a student with an F in the first two quarters. However, students who earn an NC in the Satisfactory/No Credit system courses have a retention rate of 83%, the school says.

Western Oregon University (WOU) is ditching failing grades to increase retention and student learning outcomes.

The university announced Jan. 5 that, starting in fall 2024, it will remove failing D- and F grades in favor of a "No Credit" (NC) grade that does not negatively impact a student's GPA.

The new grading system will allow faculty and advising staff to help students potentially change majors or explore interesting academic areas. Students can repeat a course as many times as they like. However, after students receive two NCs in a course, advisors will evaluate options with the student.

"GPAs will now be a true reflection of student success and course mastery; failures will no longer mask the demonstrated abilities of our students when they pass courses," Provost Jose Coll said in a press release.

"Ungrading," which rejects traditional grades for alternative methods, has existed at some colleges for decades and has slowly made its way through schools like Brown University, Columbia University, Wellesley College, and even some law schools.

Students who fail a course in their first year are discouraged from being engaged, according to the university's press release. WOU is 60% less likely to retain a student with an F in the first two quarters.

However, according to WOU, students who earn an NC in Satisfactory/No Credit system courses have a retention rate of 83%.

The university said retention issues are acute for first-generation and historically excluded students. NC will prevent GPAs from becoming barriers to class registration, financial aid, and transferring.

"We believe in the growth, learning, and potential of all Western Oregon University students, and this grading standard lets everyone know that we plan to walk with them every step of the way," WOU President Jesse Peters said in the press release.

Ungrading Around the Country

WOU is joining 15-plus colleges and universities that have abandoned traditional grades and moved to alternative systems, including narrative evaluations, High Pass/Pass/No Credit, and, sometimes, a hybrid of each.

The Evergreen State College in Washington has not offered letter grades since its inception. Instead, it provides students with narrative evaluations, which can include:

  • Faculty evaluations
  • Self-written evaluations
  • Student evaluations of faculty

Other colleges, like Harvey Mudd College in California, grade first-year students with High Pass, Pass, or No Credit during the first semester.

Ungrading "encourages a growth mindset that can help students take agency in their learning" and "removes the threat of 'getting it wrong' or getting a 'bad grade,' thus freeing students to take more risks and engage in more creative thinking," according to a resource by Christopher Phillips, an English professor at Lafayette College.