This Spring Break, my last as a Cornell undergrad, was simply too brief. And now I have no choice — Graduation Day is staring me implacably in the eye. In a few short weeks — I already wish it were longer — I will bid our dear Ithacan icebox a fond farewell.
In keeping with my pensive mood, a swarm of “what ifs” presses incessantly on my mind. What if I had joined a different circle of friends? What if I had chosen a different major? What if I had stayed true to my high school vow to never get overcommitted in college (… and look how well that turned out …). After all, over the course of one’s college career, who wouldn’t wish one could change a decision or two or three?
I know I am in good company. When I ask myself how I justified making certain decisions in my first year, the not so surprising answer is: “I was adjusting to college.” My fellow seniors, when asked the same question, invariably point to the same answer — the college adjustment process.
Adjusting to a new and unfamiliar environment is never easy, and the transition from high school to college is particularly prone to missteps. From learning how to manage deceptively vast amounts of free time, a very different academic workload and unrelenting social pressures to conform, I sometimes wonder how students are able to emerge from freshman year intact.
It is quite amazing that after all this time the freshman adjustment process remains a work in progress for universities across the nation. Some schools seek to integrate freshmen directly into pre-existing college social structures, such as a residential house system in which freshmen are intermingled with students of different class years. This is very much a “sink or swim” approach. Fortunately, Cornell recognizes the uniqueness of the freshman year experience. The North Campus Initiative quite sensibly seeks to nurture freshmen in their own residential environment and carefully guide them into the college experience.
Cornell’s response to the social adjustment process is well thought out. An experienced cadre of residential programs and campus life officials, together with a dedicated group of faculty in residence and student resident advisors provide a strong safety net for freshmen. Student organizations make a concerted effort to reach out to new students, opening doors to the various communities on campus. While clearly the social pressures of the first year experience remain, Cornell, perhaps more so than most of its peers, does a remarkable job in addressing and mitigating them.
Given its sensitivity to freshmen social pressures, it is all the more surprising that Cornell lacks a similar response to the academic pressures freshmen face. Of course, I can appreciate why Cornell administrators might be apprehensive. With a wide variety of different disciplines within each college and across the University, it is difficult to say what freshmen students need in order to adapt. But this is precisely the point. The very complexity of the academic challenges confronting freshmen suggests that they need a more comprehensive adjustment process.
Some other colleges and universities address the freshmen academic adjustment problem head on. Swarthmore College, for example, has instituted a pass/fail system for the first semester of the freshman year. Brown University also has a pass/fail system for the crucial first semester (and, in fact, beyond as well). Furthermore, the freshmen academic challenge is recognized even beyond the undergraduate level. At Yale Law School, for instance, the first semester of the first year is on a pass/fail basis.
The thought of Cornell adopting a pass/fail system for fall semester freshmen year poses an interesting “what if” for me. On one hand, I can certainly see how this would ease the academic adjustment process for stressed out freshmen. After all, focusing on the social aspects of college life, while ignoring the “academic shock” of college is incomplete; in fact, it ultimately undermines the effort to help freshmen make the transition from high school to college.
To be sure, there are downsides to consider. First, there is the inevitable argument that pass/fail distorts GPAs and might adversely affect one’s competitiveness with respect to grad school or professional school. This is dubious, as it is unlikely that much weight is given to first semester freshmen grades in an assessment of the overall quality of a student’s candidacy. Second, and more persuasive, perhaps removing the pressure of grades in the very first semester may encourage freshmen to ignore academics in favor of social pursuits, i.e. partying. However, there are ways to counter this. One option could be that freshmen receive “shadow grades” reflecting what they would have received had their coursework been counted for a grade. This would certainly serve as a pointed reminder to students as to the quality of academic performance demanded by Cornell. And this is only one of many ways to ensure the effective implementation of such a policy.
As history shows, Cornell has never been afraid of change. On the contrary, Cornell is an institution where “what ifs” can be turned into reality. Cornell has provided a unique answer to the challenge of social adjustment for freshmen. It surely can address the more serious problem of academic adjustment in a similar vein.