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It's learning, not grades that count for first-semester freshmen at Swarthmore

Emma Morgan-Bennett isn't sure whether she wants a career in the humanities or the hard sciences, or a piece of both.

Swarthmore College senior Sedinam Worlanyo, 21, a computer science and economic development major from Ghana.
Swarthmore College senior Sedinam Worlanyo, 21, a computer science and economic development major from Ghana.Read moreED HILLE / Staff Photographer

Emma Morgan-Bennett isn't sure whether she wants a career in the humanities or the hard sciences, or a piece of both.

So the Swarthmore College freshman decided to use her first semester to explore. She'll take biology, introduction to education, and Spanish.

Oh, and costume design.

"Because, why not?" said Morgan-Bennett, 18, of New York City.

It's the kind of academic comfort and freedom that Swarthmore tries to encourage by having all first-semester freshmen take their classes pass/fail - or credit/no credit, as Swarthmore likes to call it.

Under the policy, professors share grades with students so they know how they did, but no A, B, C or D ever appears on an official transcript. They get credit or they don't.

The idea, college officials say, is to reduce the stress of that first semester for students who have spent their high school careers in highly competitive environments on "a bit of a hamster wheel," as one called it. Students are allowed to enjoy learning at a highly selective liberal arts college for the sake of nothing more than learning, said Diane Anderson, associate dean for academic affairs at Swarthmore.

"They can do something that is serendipitous, that's outside of their comfort zone, and be more focused on the learning rather than grade achievement," Anderson said.

The 1,580-student college has had the somewhat unusual policy, also referred to as "shadow grading," since 1970, she said.

Many other selective colleges in the Philadelphia region do not have it. Not the University of Pennsylvania. Nor Haverford. Nor Villanova. Nor Bryn Mawr.

Wellesley, alma mater of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, began a pass/no-pass policy for its first-semester freshmen in fall 2014.

"This policy provides first-year students with the opportunity to learn about the standards for academic achievement at Wellesley and to assess the quality of their work in relation to these standards," the Massachusetts college says on its website.

Some colleges have opted against such a policy or ended one. Johns Hopkins University announced it would end its practice beginning with freshmen entering in fall 2017.

In a letter to students in May, university deans said the policy hindered both students who perhaps didn't do their best work and those who performed well and couldn't have their grades revealed outside the institution.

"Too often, covered grades merely delay development of study skills and adaptation to college-level work," wrote deans T.E. "Ed" Schlesinger and Beverly Wendland.

They also said the policy was "not well-understood and at times not well-received by graduate schools and potential employers."

Anderson said some people outside Swarthmore also question the policy.

"One of the things they're afraid of is that students will slack off," she said. "Very few students here slack off."

Consider the quality of Swarthmore's current incoming class: Almost all of them were in the top 10 percent of their high school classes, with average reading and math SATs ranging from 1340 to 1530 out of 1600.

Freshmen pass 99 percent of the first-semester credit/no-credit classes, the college said.

Sarah Willie-LeBreton, chair of the sociology/anthropology department, said that when she first joined the college 19 years ago, she worried - as have other newcomers.

"Is this a program where young people are not encouraged to take their courses seriously their first semester? We have discovered that's not the case at all," she said. "It really has worked."

Anderson said the college also tells students that department chairs can see their "shadow grades" and that if they don't perform well in a course that is needed for their major, they may have to take it again or risk not getting into the major.

Sedinam Worlanyo, 21, a senior from Ghana, said the first-semester policy helped her find her major. She came in thinking she wanted to study political science, but decided to try a computer science class.

"It ended up working out. I'm a CS major now," she said. "It allowed me to explore something that I otherwise would not have explored."

Rose Ridder, a sophomore from outside Seattle, said the policy has pluses and minuses.

"Coming from a smaller high school, I wasn't sure I knew how to study. So it was really helpful to just have that bumper, I guess," said Ridder, an engineering/cognitive science major. "I had a semester to kind of figure out what I'm doing."

But when she had to send her grades in for scholarships, she had to settle for a screenshot of marks her professors shared, she said.

"That feels so weird," she said.

Some students, Anderson said, ask the college to release their grades. It doesn't.

Swarthmore, however, will confirm to insurance agencies whether a student has a B average or better, she said.

"There's a good driver discount," she explained.

Morgan-Bennett said the policy was one of the reasons she enrolled at Swarthmore. Her parents, both college professors, also liked it, she said.

"They were like, 'This is a really great opportunity to stretch your muscles before you decide where you want to focus in on,' " she said.

The policy, she said, also takes pressure off freshmen playing fall sports.

"It allowed us to be a little more fearless in choosing our classes," said Morgan-Bennett, a 6-foot middle blocker for the volleyball team.

Morgan-Bennett is contemplating a concentration of classes in the medical/anthropology area. She can see herself perhaps working in rural communities in Latin America with pregnant women.

But for now, she's enjoying that "really, really cool" costume design class.