The issue has crept up on me slowly over the last several years. I am increasingly aware of the massive debt that many of my students are taking on, debt which is far beyond the sort of debt that I incurred as an undergraduate in the 1980s. Because of this, in recent semesters I have found it somewhat difficult to fail students. Instead of simply asking myself "does this student deserve to fail this class?", I find myself asking "does this student deserve to have their life ruined?" In many cases (e.g. students who are already on academic probation) this is not much of an exaggeration. It is a very bad situation to find yourself in your early 20s with no college degree but $30,000 in debt. In some cases, I am aware that a decision of mine might be a contributing cause of a student ending up in just such a situation. I can no longer regard a failing grade as a relatively minor matter (like a speeding ticket).

How do professors reconcile their de jure role as guardians of academic integrity with their de facto role of being (at least in part) responsible for their students' economic future?

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – eykanal
    Commented May 16, 2019 at 14:01
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    Folks - please take all conversation to chat! Comments can only be migrated once; after that they're just deleted. Please reserve comments for questions/clarification requests about the question itself.
    – eykanal
    Commented May 16, 2019 at 19:29

21 Answers 21


You are responsible for teaching the students to the best of your ability, and to judge their capacities to use what they have learned. That judgment is made based on their grades. So you have several things to think about here.

  1. Are you teaching the best you can? Teaching does not mean "downloading facts", as I'm sure you're aware. It means "transferring knowledge, skills, and attitudes". That "transfer" part is the important bit — transfer means that the student is able to reproduce and use what they've learned. Is your teaching enhancing this transfer? This is a tough nut to crack — how do you know? Are you planning your assessments so that you can really tease out the nuances and to see which students really understand, or are they just assessments because you need to assign a grade somehow? Your institution might have a center for teaching how to teach, and if you feel that you aren't teaching your best class then start there. Otherwise, lots of books and resources exist, which I'm sure we can all provide.

  2. Are you assessing fairly? Fairly doesn't mean easily. It means that you are creating assessments that actually test understanding and that a student with reasonable ability will be able to succeed at. It also means to understand their context. It's easy to make a "really good" assessment that everyone fails because they also have three projects and two midterms in their other courses. Are your expectations clearly communicated, and are you ensuring that you only assess what you've asked for? (that doesn't mean that you can't expect students to go above and beyond, just that you need to tell them you expect them to)

  3. Are you assessing accurately? I'm distinguishing this from "fair", but you can treat "fair" and "accurate" as two sides of the same coin. Accurate means that your assessments are set up so that appropriate weight is given to appropriate topics, and that your tests actually enable students to display their understanding and capacities, rather than whether they memorized the example or found the answer on stack exchange. Creating fair assessments is challenging, but there is a lot of research and resources available.

  4. Are you giving every student the chance to seek help? I often find that if students are slipping through the cracks, setting up a regular meeting with them to keep them on track can do wonders. However, I am in a job in which I'm required to work with students like this, so it's easy for me to do. If you are a busy research professor who is teaching two courses per semester while juggling other things, it's a lot harder. Ultimately, the final exam is not when a student should find out they failed the course. They should know that they are on a bad path long before then, and should have opportunities to get on track.

If you are doing these things, then you are not causing them financial ruin. It's similarly not fair to say that the students are causing this — you don't know their context and can't make the judgment. Perhaps they went to a bad high school that just didn't prepare them, or perhaps they are always on the train to another city because their parents are sick and they can't attend classes. It is not your responsibility to help them in this way unless you are capable of providing everyone the same help. Which brings me to the most unfortunate reality of post-secondary education:

Not everyone can make it. For whatever reason, some students simply will not demonstrate that their abilities are up to the standard that has been set. Notice the wording I used there — I didn't say that they don't have those abilities, but that they will not demonstrate that they have those abilities. Provided you are assessing them fairly/accurately, teaching the best you can, and giving the help they pay for, then you are providing them with every opportunity to demonstrate those abilities. If they are unable to do so, then it would be unethical to let them pass regardless of the reason.

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    +1 for "Ultimately, the final exam is not when a student should find out they failed the course. They should know that they are on a bad path long before then, and should have opportunities to get on track."
    – Dawn
    Commented May 15, 2019 at 18:48
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    While the questions you ask are good ones, I feel like you don't address the most relevant one: how to determine criteria for passing the class? Admittedly, this depends on many factors.
    – Kimball
    Commented May 15, 2019 at 19:39
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    You can be the best teacher in the world but the learning is ultimately done by the student.
    – Tom
    Commented May 16, 2019 at 5:21
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    The last paragraph is the key to being objective and avoiding the (perhaps borderline unprofessional) emotional involvement in minding the student's personal economic circumstances when assigning grades. Grades are about evidence of learning - just (paying to be) turning up isn't enough.
    – Nij
    Commented May 16, 2019 at 8:12
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    I wrote a separate answer but it might help improve this answer to add that some (all?) students might need the D or F or even the academic probation or suspension to wake them up and make them either rise to the occasion or re-assess and change their direction in life. A failing grade, fairly earned and assessed, can be just as valuable as an A+ in the larger picture of life. Commented May 16, 2019 at 13:53

Take the example of a medical student. Do you want to pass someone who does not have the necessary knowledge to treat patients correctly? It is your duty to make sure that only the ones who know what they are doing will pass. This may be less strict in other subjects but the principle is the same.

--- EDIT --- Another example where this becomes clear would be an airplane engineer or pilot that does not have the necessary knowledge (thanks to Mike's comment below!).

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    Or fly in an airplane that one of your students that you "passed" has worked on?
    – Solar Mike
    Commented May 15, 2019 at 17:07
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    True for any industry. Someone who can't do the work will drag down a whole team or business. This is really a short sighted ethics question - valuing 1 person making bad choices to take on massive student debt while not performing against the welfare of many people.
    – Paul
    Commented May 15, 2019 at 17:26
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    I’m curious about other industries but in mine the “degree” part of the resume counts for almost nothing when getting a job, except perhaps a first-pass filter, but even then it only filters out those who didn’t lie about not getting theirs.
    – Cory Klein
    Commented May 15, 2019 at 17:48
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    Since you picked a deliberately extreme case, your answer is of limited general applicability. I don't think OP would loose much sleep over this particular example. Commented May 15, 2019 at 19:37
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    @SolarMike However, both medicine and safety-critical engineering require licensure via government-sanctioned tests. They know that merely attaining a degree isn't sufficient evidence to demonstrate competency. They don't even trust a single licensed engineer to be competent: peer review of designs is a normal part of many engineering fields.
    – user71659
    Commented May 15, 2019 at 19:51

Ultimately you aren't responsible for the behavior of your students nor for their bad decisions. You aren't responsible, either, for how they react to a failure. For some students, as I have seen, a failure can be a wake-up that gets them onto a better path.

You certainly aren't responsible for the terrible way that we finance higher education in the US as long as you are willing to pay taxes for the common good.

I'm assuming, of course, that you are responsive to their needs and that you try to do what you can to help them before the failure occurs, but sometimes you just have to call it what it is. It may help them change majors. It may help them find a career path that they would enjoy more. Lots of things are possible, but all outside your control.

But when you do fail students it is helpful, when possible, to advise them about their options. Simply continuing on without some change in behavior or attitude is likely to just get them deeper into debt, both educationally and financially.

Be honest, but be helpful.

I'll also note that it is possible to design a system in which it is hard to fail for a student willing to work. For me this meant the possibility of a student repeating work for a better grade. Grades weren't given as gifts, but on demonstration that the important lessons were actually learned, even if not at the first trial.

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    +1 for "I'll also note that it is possible to design a system in which it is hard to fail for a student willing to work. For me this meant the possibility of a student repeating work for a better grade." This is a lot of work for me, but it makes me sure that those who get failing grades "earned" them.
    – Dawn
    Commented May 15, 2019 at 18:47
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    For some students, as I have seen, a failure can be a wake-up that gets them onto a better path. +1 one of the watershed moments in my life was failing a math test when I was 15. I had been doing poorly for a while, but always rationalized it as "I know how to do it, I just didn't have the time in the exam", especially since I had been really good at math during primary school. After failing that exam I put in a lot more effort and my grades improved dramatically.
    – Allure
    Commented May 16, 2019 at 1:50
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    I'll also note that it is possible to design a system in which it is hard to fail for a student willing to work. — I've been spoiled in that the vast majority of students who have failed my classes either cheated or were not willing to work. But a small minority worked hard and honestly, but simply seemed to be unprepared. No matter how much effort they put in, no matter how many chances I gave them, they didn't master the material. Closer investigation revealed that they didn't have the necessary prerequisite skills; earlier instructors had been "nice" to them and let them pass....
    – JeffE
    Commented May 17, 2019 at 12:41
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    ...despite their poor performance in prerequisite classes. And that previous experience had taught the students to ignore my early warnings that they were on the path to failure. I suspect that many, or even most, of the students who failed because they "gave up" also fall into this category. So while it may be possible to design a system as you describe it, such a system can't reasonably be designed by a single instructor!
    – JeffE
    Commented May 17, 2019 at 12:44
  • Very much agree with @JeffE. Commented May 17, 2019 at 13:22

You're not failing the students. Assuming you performed your teaching job well, and you're grading them fairly, the students are failing themselves. They didn't study well enough to pass the class, or maybe they just don't have a talent for this material. Giving someone a passing grade when they haven't earned it is not fair to them, and it dilutes the value of passing grades for all the other students. If they need to use what you're teaching them in their career, they're not going to be as successful. The passing grade you gave them doesn't actually make them competent.

When you go to college, you're not buying a degree. No matter how much debt you get yourself into, you're not entitled to the diploma, you still have to do the work and pass the classes. And as a teacher, it's your responsibility to make sure they've done that before passing them.


Something other answers did not yet address - by giving unfairly good grades to undeserving students, you are dramatically, and unfairly, penalizing good students.

Students - in large part - choose to attend a university based on its academic reputation. Perhaps, paying premium.

If your lax grading methods graduate unfit students instead of failing them, this will materially affect the successful student's reputations as graduates of your school, since the employers or graduate schools would have no way of knowing if someone graduated your program because they were a good student, OR, because you took pity on them. So, everyone will be tarred with the bad reputation and that would negatively affect their lives and careers.

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    You’re certainly penalising good students “unfairly”, but not “dramatically” — which is why this dilemma is so difficult. If (say) I had to pick just 10 out of 20 students to pass a course, then passing a below-the-borderline student out of compassion would be dramatically penalising whichever student got swapped out instead — and it would be much easier to be firm, then, and say “I wish I could pass X, but not at the cost of failing Y”. When you can pass as many as you choose, the penalty to good students is very distant and incremental (while still also very real).
    – PLL
    Commented May 16, 2019 at 12:23
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    @PLL - as someone who graduated from "open admissions, let's pass everyone" college that in the past was actually considered very high level by grad schools and employers - but by my time was considered low level - I beg to differ about the magnitude of the problem.
    – DVK
    Commented May 16, 2019 at 14:54
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    I completely agree the problem is very real and serious; I just wanted to add the point that it arises insidiously and incrementally. If I’m a little bit over-generous to one student, the payoff of that individual act is very visible (tangible benefit to that student), while the cost is invisible (thousands of other students’ grades get devalued by an imperceptible extra amount). The cost is massive and visible overall, but only in the aggregate, not for any individual act. I find being conscious of this is helpful for resisting the temptation towards over-generosity.
    – PLL
    Commented May 19, 2019 at 11:22

Being put on academic probation was one of the best things that ever happened to me. I switched to community college, took art, music, and math classes, learned who I really was instead of who I thought I was, and eventually graduated with a Bachelor's and have had a lovely career doing things that are truly meaningful to me.

The bad grades I "earned" in my first two years at a university were trying to tell me several things: I was not at the right school. I was not in the right major. I was not in the right place in my life mentally and emotionally. But the grades alone didn't help me understand. The letter I got that said I was on probation was what I needed to get to understand that I was doing the wrong things. If professors had just passed me because they felt for me, I would probably be far less happy with my life right now.

I would argue that students are paying you to give them the feedback they need on their work and views, they are not paying you for credits and/or a degree.


The other answers are great, but I want to stress one thing not really mentioned in other answers: if you are concerned, talk to them before they fail. Don't single them out for help because again it won't be fair, but still: tell them explicitly that if they continue performing as they have, they are going to fail the class. Point them to the various resources that are available (e.g. undergraduate tutors, office hours). If they still fail, as the proverb goes, you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink.

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    Extra credit for warning these students near the last refund day, and again nearing the last withdraw day.
    – user102072
    Commented May 16, 2019 at 21:29
  • In some cases this may not be feasible due to very large numbers of students failing, or the like. Commented May 17, 2019 at 13:23
  • You can use computer graded quizzes with an automatic messaging system to notify students who need help and provide resources. You can ask tech support to help set this up.
    – LN6595
    Commented May 17, 2019 at 13:32

Your compassion is admirable but is not unique. Other answers have provided more detailed answers about grading, content prep and presentation, students 'earning' their grade and that is all true.

Responsibility vs Accountability

With my answer I want to add to the discussion the point that the economic situation of a student may seem dire it is still the students responsibility and not yours. Them making you aware of their situation (even innocently) can have the effect of shifting that responsibility unfairly to one who is not accountable for it (you).

It's Not Life or Death, Until It Is

When I was in college there was a professor who would comment about students complaining about difficult tests or mounds of homework by recalling how different it was in the 1970's when a male student failing out of college made them eligible for the draft with a likely outcome of being sent to Vietnam; which carried with it a very real risk to their health or lifespan. He wasn't saying that he failed people in order to send them to be drafted, he was saying the motivation of students facing such risks were much higher in those days. It wasn't him that decided who was born male, who would be drafted, who would be given a gun and sent out into the jungle.

Guilt, party of 2

Did the student confer with you before choosing their major? Did they ask your opinion about which school to attend? Did they check with you before taking out those loans? You are neither responsible nor accountable for their choices.


While I would not ask you to stop feeling compassion, you should not allow their predicament to turn into guilt on your part. Should you turn your back on these students? Absolutely not, but what then?

Either add something in your syllabus or to your first lecture something to effect of, "I know some of you may be relying on financial aid (loans, scholarships) which carry an eligibility component which may be affected by how well you do in this class. If that applies to you, I would suggest you get with me early in the semester so I can assist however I can to point you to resources to improve your chances of success in this class."

To effect, you are saying "I can point you to water but I can't make you drink". That is the most that can be reasonably be asked of you since you can't do the work for them or make them attend class, etc.


Some of the discussion surrounding this question demonstrates that people are viewing it through two different implicit lenses, and I'd like to make them explicit.

  • Considered as an act in isolation A single decision to give a student a "kindly" mark has quite diffuse negative consequences. As long as we assume that the rest of the student's record is accurate, the harm to students who have legitimately passed the course, to the institution awarding the credential, and to the organizations that will later trust that credential as a mark of suitability are all very modest. Down in the weeds, really.

  • Considered as a pattern If we assume that "give the poor kid a break" is a social norm that could be applied over and over again to a single student, then the picture is different. Some subset of students will be awarded credentials that don't mean what they say on the label, their subsequent failure in work environments will drag down the reputation of the institution and with it the value of degrees earned by students who didn't get a bunch of soft passes. And the damage starts even earlier than that, because professors in second year and later courses will have classes coming in less prepared than they should be and will have to give time over to remedial explanations and hand-holding to the detriment of progress in their course.

Several times during my career I've agonized over the kind of decision facing John, and I'm hugely sympathetic. I feel for students who have gotten themselves into a financial bind they don't have the where-with-all to haul themselves out of. But by the time a student is standing in my office explaining that if they don't pass my class they won't graduate and, and, and ... they have already have years of warning signs. That can't be on one professors' head.

More than once I discretely (no names) sounded out some of my colleagues about a student only to come away reasonably convinced that the subject had already been given a break; probably more than once.

As an aside I'm convinced that a significant amount of blame for the binds the students get into in the US lies with a financing system that "just grew that way" through a serious of short-sighted and frankly stupid decisions made by politicians who were personally isolated from the consequences. Both major parties have been vastly wrongheaded in their own ways, but the damage is worse because of they ways they have compromised; the old joke about bipartisanship leading to stupid-evil legislation applies.


The degree that you'll help getting will only benefit the students who will use it to get a job they are not truly qualified for. If a student gets a job in a different area, they'd do just fine without the degree. If they eventually become good at what you were supposed to teach them in the first place (by getting education elsewhere or getting work experience on a lower position), that's also doable without a degree.

A degree is essentially a certificate which says: don't keep this person mopping floors for three years, they already know what they need to know, and are ready to take responsibilities. Do you think this can be said of a student who is nevertheless going to fail your class?

And again: failing a degree is not a death sentence. Nobody's ruined and doomed for life because they have college debt and no degree at age 25. Someone who was in debt for their entire life typically haven't just picked a wrong class in college: usually there's a pattern of bad decisions throughout their whole life.

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    People bring very different emotional contexts to the idea of "deserving", so this might be better framed in terms of qualification. Passing the student would help them get a job they are not truly qualified for with negative effects on the organization they join and possibly on them as well. Commented May 16, 2019 at 14:49

By giving students grades they didn't earn, don't deserve, you devalue the entire educational institution and the titles and diplomas it hands out.

These students, now with titles and diplomas they should not have had for whatever reason by any standard, enter the marketplace and get jobs based on those titles and diplomas.

They WILL fail in those jobs, hopefully before millions upon millions of dollars are lost, or worse lives.

When that happens, their coworkers and employers will start to question whether the degree they presented when applying and brag about over lunch is really worth anything at all. That may well lead to that company no longer hiring from the university that handed out that degree.

I've seen it happen (though not with a university, this was a post-grad certification system for professionals). The job performance of employees with certification from a specific company was overall so bad that the company I worked with started refusing to hire anyone who had said certification unless it was backed by years of field experience even for junior jobs, and then we did solid reference checks with former employers just to make sure as well as grill them deeply on the topics that should have been covered by that certification.

There's a reason it's tough to get a degree, and that reason is to filter out the few who earn it from the many who (for whatever reason) don't. You have a responsibility to that few to not discredit their achievements and effort by diluting the degree through reduction of standards.

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    Millions of dollars, devaluing entire institutions, lives lost... A bit too much drama for "helping" a borderline student through the hoop. Commented May 16, 2019 at 14:05
  • @henning you'd be surprised. I've worked in jobs where such a person, had he been hired, could indeed have caused such levels of damage even as a junior member of the team.
    – jwenting
    Commented May 22, 2019 at 3:27

Here in Germany universities are quite strict. After my daughter failed the very last maths exam three times, she was out.

However, strict does not mean heartless or planless. Her uni had an arrangement with the tech unis; one of them agreed to accept the exams she had already passed and enrol her in a similar course, for the third year. She was not alone in this.

This way all that time and investment was not lost.

You could organise a similar scheme with nearby polys or tech colleges, to take up your students, who didn't quite manage, but are still worthy of education. So everybody wins.

  • I accept that this is not an answer to your question. It is a suggestion on how to save your students without resorting to grade inflation.
    – RedSonja
    Commented May 16, 2019 at 8:16

There are two sides of this issue, the way I see it.

Firstly, from your personal point of view, I do not think that you should bear this, indeed, extremely high, responsibility of choosing between academic integrity and economic ruin of your students. But, as you have identified it, this is happening, and I believe this is something you should do something about, as it is directly affecting your life in ways it shouldn't. If I think the government is not properly regulating a field, say food standards, then I complain about it, I vote more carefully, I may become an activist of the matter, or ultimately maybe even start doing politics with the goal of improving those regulations. And that's what I believe you should do.

Secondly, as a professor, you are the leading elite of the society. This privileged position comes with a heavy responsibility for leading the entire society. A responsibility you voluntarily accepted when you chose your career path. Of course you share this responsibility with the entire society, but as a shaper of the future generation, your share is simply larger than the share of most people of the society. You are not just the de jure guardian of academic integrity, you are a model, you are a leader, you are the shaper, of society. From the weight of your position, I find it your duty to always consider all your roles with every decision. Decide in such a manner that you can peacefully place your head on the pillow every night, knowing that you did right by the people who offered you this privilege. I can't, and I believe nobody can, tell you which side you should error on. Your decisions are extremely personal, they make you who you are, and each situation is different and may grant a different approach.

I would like to take the opportunity to comment a bit on what seems to be the common thinking:

  • as long as you teach well, it's not your problem, they are failing themselves by taking too much debt and not studying hard enough. You are paid to guard academic integrity (e.g. giving grades) and not to empathize with other people

The way I see it, this approach just ditches your responsibility. It even sounds as an excuse and that's because it is the kind of excuse other guardians were doing, at great moral costs, but in exchange of significant privileges.

  • what if the student will become a doctor and later kill people

This is simply just one particular case for which you have to weigh all the factors before taking a good decision. I would say the risk of the student killing other people in the future is almost always something that should tip the scale towards failing the student. Still, even in this situation, if we consider the extreme case that I would know a student would be drafted if I would fail them, which would lead to an almost certain death, I would just let them pass, even at significant costs to me, because I am staunch opposer of the death penalty.

Ultimately, just because you sought and received the privilege and responsibility of a professor, it doesn't mean it has to be like that for your entire life. You are free to pursue your own happiness, even if that means giving up the responsibility and the associated privileges, but just judging by the question you asked here... that would be a pitty.

In conclusion, being in your situation is hard, it will never be easy, but it really doesn't have to be this hard and it's up to you to change it.


Here's an added perspective: If you start passing students for non-academic reasons (or really even just start spending mental energy considering that), there is no lower bound to that concern. Wherever you decide to set your threshold, there will always be students further down academically. There will always be some students to be "ruined", and the more your institution lowers standards, the further-down your population will drift over time, in like response to the lowered expectations.

This is notably coming from my position as a faculty member at a (large, urban, northeast US) community college. Nationally, community colleges only have a 22% graduation rate after 3 years (our is somewhat higher than that). I've routinely witnessed courses from remedial level up with 50%-60% failure rates. (In contrast, 4-year colleges only have 60% graduation rates after six years.) Many of our students cannot read or write at an elementary level, handle the simplest elementary arithmetic, have emotional/intellectual disabilities, etc. There is no threshold we could possibly set that would serve to pass all or most of these students.

Example 1: I've had students ask whether they were guaranteed a passing grade as long as they physically attended every class session, and were incredulous when the answer was "no". (Apparently that's fairly common in some courses now.)

Example 2: A few years ago we had a university-wide remedial algebra exam for all students (e.g, at the 8th-9th grade level). I attended a central planning meeting where someone asserted something like, "Our goal was to make an exam that no one could possibly fail. We have not succeeded, because 50% of the students are still failing." (This was given as a positive argument for further reducing the standard of the exam.) Ultimately this was found to be an impossible endeavor, so the college has now abandoned the exam and the basic-algebra requirement entirely.

Example 3: In light of budget and enrollment pressures, among the university's new endeavors is to more widely expand advertising and enrollment to even more severely learning-disabled and intellectually-disabled prospective students.

The OP identifies a keenly-felt and significant problem. But granted my perspective, I might suggest that there is no solution to this problem. No matter where you set the threshold or cutoff, there are more (many more) students lined up further down (arbitrarily further down) the skill and intellectual ladder hoping for the same judgement. It's a cycle that has no hypothetical end.

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    That's very convincing. Regarding the last paragraph, strictly speaking, there might be a solution to the problem, but for the reason you state (basically, you would enter an infinite regress), the solution is out of OP's hands. It's a policy issue, not an individual ethical issue. Commented May 17, 2019 at 19:42

I think you are trying to assume too much responsibility.

The way you grade your students (assuming no malicious intent on your part) is not what is (possibly) causing their ruin. What might be causing it (besides, perhaps, some bad decisions of their own) is the system which forces them to go into debt or does not provide them with sufficient opportunities to study properly (e.g. by having them go to bad schools, or forcing them to work long hours in a part-time job).

You are not directly responsible for any of this.

Indirectly, you can try to change the system. I can think of a couple of ways to do it:

  1. You can support (or even start) political initiatives which aim to change what you consider to be unfair.
  2. If you think your job is part of the problem, you could quit, and look for a different job which would have less of a bad impact (e.g. a worse paid job at a place with lower fees).
  3. You could do something to actively sabotage the system.

I think your suggestion (passing students who don't really merit a passing grade) falls under the sabotage category. Indeed, by passing students regardless of their merit, you undermine the whole system --- the more teachers at your institution do that, the less value a passing grade will have. At the logical conclusion, the whole higher education system would collapse, and something better could come up from the ruins. Maybe (but probably not).

Either way, in the interim, this would harm all the other students (who do merit a passing grade) by diminishing their accomplishments, other people (when the "passed" ones get a job they are not competent for, perhaps instead of someone more qualified), and possibly the ones you wanted to help (by pushing them to an ill-chosen career path).

I think ideally, the first solution I have mentioned should be the best, and sabotage should only be used as a last resort.


How do professors reconcile their de jure role as guardians of academic integrity with their de facto role of being (at least in part) responsible for their students' economic future?

This is an interesting question, and the premise in the part I quoted is good. The distinction that should be made when considering the whole of the question is that professors may have such a guardian role, but not in their grading duties.

Indeed, professors (and many people in the academic system) have some power to minimise the impact of failing students (on those students and society) but this should not be done by passing failing students.

Instead, there are many ways to ensure it won't come to that (or at least minimise the failing rates).

The best way to do that (as a professor of a course) is to make sure students are well prepared. While you may not want to set high entry requirements, you can provide a lot of information on what you expect students to know before starting your course.

For example, for a more advanced course, you should:

  • Refer to previous courses that you will rely on. Make sure you explain which topics will be used. Try linking to the course page of that previous course (if at all possible) so students can look through old slides and exams to get a sense of what's required for your course.

  • Explain what other skills are needed. Will you be using some obscure programming language? Provide such information beforehand so students might do some research on that themselves when they aren't that busy with other courses.

  • Make sure this information is known. Put it on your course page, make sure mentors and advisers recommending the course to students know it too, so they better prepare students before they enter your course.

On a broader scale there are also things you can do. You aren't the only one with a conscience, discuss this with others in your department and do a bi- tri-monthly brainstorm (including academic staff but maybe also invite students). Discuss why you have to fail students and what can be done to reduce failing rates without dumbing down your exams and courses.

Make sure the results of those sessions are passed on to relevant bodies in or outside your organisation. Inform student representatives, relevant departments in your university and maybe even national organisations (when it comes to freshmen coming into your university) of the results. What can they do to make sure everyone has a better experience?

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    Good advice on how to not get into this place (or at least get to it less often). Commented May 16, 2019 at 19:18

Going to college in a country with high tuition fees is a risk. A potentially very huge risk.

I think it is important to establish a scheme that makes sure that weak students notice this immediately. This means that in the very first year, it should become clear to the students whether they will make it or not.


As (most of) the other answers say, you should not do anything in your capacity as grader.

However, you are (presumably) not only an university employee, but also a human! And you could try to help as a human. For example, are you involved in (university) policitics? Try to change the system so that poorer students receive more financial help. Can you volunteer for groups helping students in you neighborhood/family (e. g. watching kids of studying parents)? This would help a lot. Can you donate money to student unions or other things they need?

(For some of these suggestions (e. g. watching kids), be careful not to help your own students to avoid conflicts of interests. But helping other students is certainly ok.)


I generally design my exams so that even a student with relatively limited understanding of the course can pass. I would really only consider a student who has achieved the highest grade (> 80%) to have a good understanding of the material, and I often see just-passing exams (50-60%) where I think that the student really had no idea, but somehow managed to scrape together enough marks to get over the line.

Armed with that viewpoint, when I see a student who fails, I think they must have really deserved it! So I don't feel too bad about failing them; they need to put in some effort to fail my course!

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    I'm concerned by the fact that a student that 'really had no idea' qualifies for passing the course. That's should qualify for repeating either the course or the exam, instead. Commented May 16, 2019 at 9:57
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    So was I, at first. But it turns out (after consultation with other academics) that I just have high standards for "having an idea"; I imagine most academics do, since they are (almost always) people who did well in their own undergraduate courses.
    – Orntt
    Commented May 16, 2019 at 23:18

You on on the front lines of the defense of the value of your institution's degree. If you water down the degree, then potential employers of your students are not guaranteed quality, and those students that deserve passing grades will bear the result.

You do have the responsibility of making sure you're teaching to your best capability, as others have pointed out.


All things in life can cause you economic ruin these days. House mortgages, car loans, hacking, frauds.

It is basically a society based on debt-based servitude where the banks are our overlords. You are likely just one well-meaning person in this huge mess and likely cannot affect this fact. As far as I know you also can not affect what these students future employers will base their decisions on.

It is not your moral obligation (nor is it even within your power) to try and steer where these students end up. It is the privilege of these debt overlords to do.

Your job is to teach and to grade. Do your job, peasant.

  • Maybe it's not a moral obligation, but I'm certainly grateful to some of my teachers who steered me earlier in life. Commented May 16, 2019 at 12:34
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    This reads to me as a rant disguised as an answer.
    – eykanal
    Commented May 16, 2019 at 14:04
  • @DmitryGrigoryev : For you the path may have been optimal but for everyone it definitely is not. Commented May 16, 2019 at 14:20
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    @eykanal It can be an answer even if it looks like a rant at the same time. The fact is that most people have no idea about how decisions regarding these peoples futures are actually being done as these decisions are mostly covert. Commented May 16, 2019 at 14:26
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    An educational system where learning is a high risk is deeply flawed. Even if OP has limited power, he should question the system that causes his conflict.
    – M. Stern
    Commented May 17, 2019 at 16:10

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