Alternative Grading

Alternative grading, first implemented in spring 2020, will also be implemented for the spring 2021 semester to serve as a safety net for undergraduate students who encounter significant challenges that impede their academic goals due to circumstances beyond their control. LionPATH allows undergraduate students to select which standard grades (those that carry grade points) they want to replace with alternative grades. For undergraduate students who earned Ds or Fs in their courses, the alternative grades protect them from having their Penn State GPA negatively impacted. For those who earned grades of C or better, the selection of SAT (Satisfactory) grades will keep the detail of these grades from appearing on their transcripts and remove them from their GPA calculation.

It is recommended that undergraduate students continue to use alternative grading very cautiously and with a lot of attention to the potential long-term implications of this decision, especially for the selection of SAT grades. Academic transcripts represent the full record of each student’s academic achievements, and all C-or-better grades indicate that undergraduate students have successfully achieved the learning outcomes for those courses. Masking this achievement with an SAT grade may be interpreted negatively by outside entities such as graduate schools and employers, some of which are likely to recalculate GPAs, making their own assumptions about what is behind an SAT grade. While the use of some form of pass/fail grading was common across higher education in spring 2020, it is much less common since, and we therefore urge students to think carefully about their selections, especially for SAT grades.

Whether students use standard or alternative grades, learning is measured in ways far beyond a cumulative grade point average. Students should continue to make their best efforts to learn all of the material in each of their courses, even if they intend to use alternative grades in some of their courses, as this is critical to learning and success.

As in the spring and fall 2020 semesters, students are responsible for selecting which letter grades they want to change to alternative grades. Students are encouraged to retain their earned letter grades that reflect their academic accomplishments. The online tool to select alternative grades for each course will be the same as the one that was used in spring and fall 2020 and will be available to students in LionPATH beginning May 12. All selections will need to be completed by 11:59 p.m. (ET) on May 21. Students are strongly encouraged to consult with their academic advisers as they make their decisions about alternative grades. 

Instructions can be found on the Spring 2021 Grades page on the University Registrar site for how to use the LionPATH GPA Calculator, used to estimate the effect of alternative grading choices, and the Alternative Grade Calculator and Request Tool, which is where students will finalize their decisions.

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Alternative Grading System

Students will have the option of replacing one or more letter grades with alternative grades that will not be included in their GPA calculation. The alternative grading options are as follows:

  • SAT (Satisfactory). This grade will be available if a student earns a C or better in a course. A course with an SAT grade can be used to meet prerequisites requiring a C or better.
  • V (Pass). This grade, which will be available if a student earns a D in a course, will be considered a passing grade. The student will earn credits for the course, and a V grade can be used to meet requirements for which D is an acceptable grade. The V grade cannot be used to meet C-or-better requirements.
  • Z (No Grade). This grade will be available if a student earns an F in a course. Z can be used to replace an F grade and will be treated similar to a Late Drop (LD).

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Frequently Asked Questions

How will I enter my grades at the end of the semester?

Instructors will enter letter grades as normal. Students will be able to review their grades before deciding the courses for which they will elect alternative grading.

Can faculty insist that students do or do not elect alternative grading for a particular course?

In general, faculty should not insist students make a particular choice, as this decision is left to students to make on a course-by-course basis. There may be special circumstances where licensure or other requirements make it advisable/required for students in that course or program to retain letter grades. This information will be communicated to students by their assigned advisers.

Does this alternative grading option apply to all students?

This alternative grading option applies to all undergraduate students taking spring 2021 courses, including Penn State World Campus students.

When do students have to make this decision?

The online tool to select alternative grades on a course-by-course basis will be the same as the one used in previous semesters and will be available to students beginning May 12, 2021. All selections will need to be completed by 11:59 p.m. (ET) on May 21.

Is there some guidance on which courses students should convert to alternative grading?

Even more so than in spring 2020, it is recommended that students use alternative grading cautiously. We have no control over how outside entities such as graduate schools or employers will view alternative grades, especially when used for multiple semesters. Remember that while various forms of pass/fail grading were widely used in spring 2020, they are much less common now, which may change how alternative grades are viewed.

In most cases, it will make sense for students to select alternative grading for those courses in which they earned a D or F. Selecting SAT grades to replace C-or-better grades should be done with care.

If students are found responsible for violating Penn State’s Academic Integrity (AI) policy in one of my courses, can they still use alternative grading for that course?

No. They will not be able to elect alternative grading for the course in which the AI violation occurred if they are found responsible.

If students are taking a course that requires a C or better, will an SAT grade meet this requirement? 

Yes. Earning an SAT grade means the faculty entered a grade of C or higher as the final grade. 

What if students earn a D in a course that is not in the C-or-better category for their program?

No. The course will still count just as if the student had kept the D. It will meet degree requirements if allowed, and it can be used to meet prerequisites. The difference is that it will not be included in GPA calculations.

Will an SAT or V grade in a course be accepted in meeting the prerequisite for a subsequent course? 

If the prerequisite requires a D or better, both grades will work. If the requirement is to earn a C or better in the prerequisite course, students will need to earn an SAT grade.

If students are considering graduate and professional schools, should they elect alternative grading?

We do not control how these external agencies might recalculate GPAs. Indeed, Penn State has already heard of cases in which other universities were refusing to accept alternative grades for transfer. This is why many in the advising community believe that the prudent advice is for students to continue to work toward strong letter grades, especially in key courses related to their programs of study. Students should speak with their academic adviser about this topic.

Is this option available to student athletes?

Yes. Students-athletes should consider taking advantage of this option just like any other student would. Students should contact their campus athletic director (Commonwealth campuses) or their academic counselor with the Morgan Academic Center (University Park) with questions.

How does alternative grading affect entrance to major (ETM) requirements?

Review the Entrance to Major (ETM) Considerations to learn more about how alternative grading may affect entrance to major.

How does this apply to Schreyer Scholars?

The Schreyer Honors College will review each student’s semester GPA and cumulative GPA to determine if a student is in good standing with Schreyer Honors College. Each Schreyer Scholar should carefully weigh whether to avail themselves of alternative grading as there may be implications associated with applications to professional schools, graduate schools, scholarships, and other academic pursuits.

Find more information on the Schreyer Honors College site.

Are there specific courses for which students should not select alternative grading?

Students enrolled in graduate courses and professional schools should speak with those schools for guidance. The other classes students will need to consider are any in which they must achieve a grade of B or better. For instance, there are some majors that require a grade of B or better for entrance to the major. In this case, students may need to retain a letter grade in those courses. Such requirements are not as common and can be found in the “How to Get In” section for the major in the Undergraduate Bulletin. Students consult with their academic adviser. 

Can students repeat courses in which they select an alternative grade and how does that affect the number of attempts allowed for an individual course?

Faculty Senate policy specifically permits you to repeat any course in which you elect alternative grades. It is important to note, though, that through spring 2021, Faculty Senate policy allows three attempts per course. Courses taken for alternative grades are included in the total attempts. Effective summer 2021, the number of attempts allowed on individual courses will be reduced to two. Petitioning for additional attempts is allowed, though granting exceptions is not guaranteed. Review the policy on the Undergraduate Education site. Students with federal financial aid can repeat a course one time and continue to receive aid for the course repeat. Students who are PA State Grant recipients and repeat a course, will not be able to have the repeat course count towards their credits progressed for the state satisfactory academic progress review. Please consult with the Office of Student Aid for specific questions.

Is there a limit to how many courses can be converted to alternative grading in spring 2021?

There is no limit to the number of courses that a student can convert to the alternative grading system in spring 2021, although the general guidance is that students should try to maintain a transcript with as many letter grades as possible. Students who choose all alternative grades will have a resulting 0.0 GPA which could negatively impact future considerations for academic choices and financial aid. Students should discuss this with their academic adviser.

If I change a student’s grade after they have selected alternative grading, will the system automatically use alternative grading for this new grade?

No. Faculty can only enter standard letter grades. If students want to elect alternative grading once the system is closed, they will need to use the petition process.

What if students want to change their alternative grading election for one or more courses?

Selections are considered final unless there is a change in circumstance for which an exception would be appropriate.

Exceptions include:

  • a student changed majors and now find that they need a letter grade reported for a course for graduate school admission after having selected the alternative grade
  • a student changed their intended major and now requires a letter grade to meet the administrative ETM requirement
  • faculty changed/entered a student’s grade in a course after the selection period for alternative grading
  • deferred grades are changed to letter grades

The Faculty Senate has developed an expedited process to allow students to submit a petition to use alternative grading in such cases.

How might the use of alternative grades impact scholarships, honors, or awards?

Many scholarships, honors, and awards are based on the achievement of a high cumulative GPA and are a recognition of outstanding academic achievement. For this reason, the use of alternative grades may make a student ineligible for certain awards and scholarships. Students should carefully consult the requirements for any scholarships, honors, or awards for which they may be eligible before deciding to choose alternative grades.

Graduation with distinction requires students to earn at least 60 credits at the University. Do courses taken for alternative grading count toward reaching this total?

Courses in which students utilize alternative grades in fall 2020 and spring 2021 will not count in meeting the minimum credit requirement to be considered for graduation with distinction. If students elected to use alternative grading for courses during spring 2020, those will continue to count toward meeting the 60-credit threshold. Penn State GPA, which excludes courses taken for alternative grades from the calculation, will be used in determining distinction level.

Can students who use alternative grading qualify for the Dean’s List?

To be considered for Dean’s List in spring 2021, students will need to have at least 12 credits carrying standard letter grades. Students’ Penn State GPA, which excludes courses taken for alternative grades from the calculation, will be used to assess academic achievement.

If a student earns an SAT or V grade in a course they are repeating, are they eligible to use that grade in the grade forgiveness policy?

Courses for which students elect alternative grades in fall 2020 and spring 2021 cannot be used in the grade forgiveness process. This means that an SAT grade taken in spring 2021 cannot be used to exclude a previous D or F from the GPA calculation. Note that this is a change from spring 2020, when this was permitted. There will never be a need to use grade forgiveness to remove an alternative grade because these grades are already excluded from the GPA calculation.

Will students be able to transfer credits to Penn State that are earned from another institution using alternative grading? 

For a course to be eligible for review for transfer credit at Penn State, the grade earned must be equivalent to a grade of C or better. The transcript must list the number of credits and indicate that the student earned a C or better. If the campus is using a form of alternative or pass/fail grading, a “pass” would only be accepted for transfer if it were clearly indicated as a C or better (and not a D or C-). Transfer courses carry credit but are not calculated into students’ Penn State GPA, no matter what grading scale is used. Similarly, in its own alternative grading scale, Penn State purposefully defined an SAT grade as C or better, and adoption of the Penn State alternative grading scale will not affect GPA.

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Entrance to Major (ETM) Considerations

Students must meet certain entrance to major (ETM) requirements for admission to any major. These requirements are found on the “How to Get In” tab in the Undergraduate Bulletin. Most majors have academic controls that are designed to help ensure students have the minimum preparation to succeed in the curriculum. These controls are typically a minimum cumulative GPA and third-semester classification. Some majors might have additional course requirements or a grade point average across a specific suite of courses or a certain number of credits. As in spring 2020, the selection of alternative grades will not limit access for students seeking admission to majors that are academically controlled. Credits earned in courses using alternative grades count toward semester standing, and SAT grades satisfy C-or-better requirements.

Penn State also has majors for which there is insufficient capacity to admit all interested students who meet academic ETM requirements. These majors — all within the colleges of Business, Communications, Earth and Mineral Sciences, Engineering, and Information Sciences and Technology — have additional administrative controls, which are also listed on the “How to Get In” tab in the Undergraduate Bulletin

Administratively Controlled Majors

ETM Considerations for Administratively Controlled Majors
Learn how alternative grading affects administratively controlled majors and view a complete list of these majors.

Special Considerations for Academically Controlled Engineering Majors

Students who are planning to apply to an engineering major that does not have administrative controls have different considerations. Unlike applying to administratively controlled majors, there is no restriction on using alternative grades for specific courses for academically controlled majors, including those in engineering. However, the general caution against using alternative grades because of how external audiences may view them remains valid. Because the academic controls for engineering majors are unique in having a credit window, courses taken for alternative grades will not automatically count toward the ETM credit window. This means that some students at the lower end of the credit window may find that they would have moved into the credit window and qualified for entrance to major if the alternatively graded courses had been included. In these cases, the college will allow students to enter the major if they otherwise meet all requirements. Students should speak with an academic adviser for more details.

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Financial Aid Considerations

Students not only need to work closely with their academic advisers to determine what is best academically for their particular situation, they also need to understand the financial aid implications of selecting alternative grading.

Scholarship Considerations

Most University-wide scholarships with renewal criteria are reviewed at the end of the spring semester for consideration to be renewed for the next academic year. At that time, students will be required to meet the established renewal criteria as determined by the donor guideline agreement (for endowed and annual scholarships) and internal guidelines (for institutional/central scholarships).

Many times, these criteria involve either 1). a minimum cumulative grade point average (CGPA), and/or, 2). a minimum of credits completed, in order to be renewed for the next academic year.

  1. Students who have renewal scholarships that have a CGPA requirement will be reviewed based on the CGPA at the end of spring 2021. For any student who has a 0.0 CGPA at the end of spring 2021, the scholarship will not be renewed for the next academic year.
  2. Students who have renewal scholarships that require a minimum total number of credits completed at the end of the spring semester with have credits evaluated as follows:
    • Standard credit bearing grades, SAT grades, and V grades will all be counted toward the total credits-earned accumulation for scholarships with a credit completion requirement for the next academic year.
    • Z grades will not be counted toward the total credits-earned accumulation for scholarships with a credit completion requirement for the next academic year.

All non-renewed scholarships are typically not considered for re-awarding if the student regains eligibility for the scholarship in future years.

Federal and State Aid Considerations

A student’s federal and state satisfactory academic progress (SAP) review for financial aid eligibility will be determined at the end of the spring semester using both standard letter grades, which earn grade points, and grades converted to the alternative grading scale, as well as the resulting cumulative grade point average (CGPA). The alternative grading scale has the same weighted factors in the SAP review as do the standard letter grades that earn grade points, except that the alternative grades will have a 0.0 GPA to factor into the SAP calculation of a minimum CGPA for future aid eligibility. The federal minimum CGPA requirement is a 2.0 CGPA for undergraduates, and a 3.0 CGPA for graduate students.

Choosing alternative grading does not eliminate the University’s requirement to process the semester (in some cases) or annual SAP review. Students who choose all alternative grades may have a resulting 0.0 CGPA which could negatively impact future considerations for academic choices and financial aid.

Students should consult with their campus Office of Student Aid representative if they have questions.

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