At American colleges and universities, it is nearly universally the case, to the best of my knowledge, that students who choose to withdraw from a course after a short window early in the semester receive a grade of W on their transcript for that course. Generally this grade does not affect the GPA directly, but these W's have direct effects in that they may damage on students' academic standing or financial aid, prevent dean's listing, etc. Probably more importantly, they have indirect effects that people reading a student's transcript may assume a W indicates the student would have earned a very low grade had they finished the course.

Having discussed this with some colleagues, I've had trouble generating arguments in favor of this system. There would be obvious benefits to students of allowing withdrawals not to appear on the transcript. I would argue there would be advantage to professors and universities as well, as students would have less intense pressure to succeed in a course on the first try, thus reducing some pressure on professors to dumb courses down. The best argument I can generate in favor of W's is that they encourage students to commit to their courses, and in particular not to play the lottery in the same course over and over in hopes of getting an easy instructor. But such lottery-playing would be plainly visible in a long time-to-degree, so I don't see that the W does much but add insult to injury here.

What is the fundamental justification universities use for this system?

  • I'm not sure that Academia SE has the power to destroy the system. And it is not as uniform as you seem to think.
    – Jon Custer
    Mar 10, 2021 at 0:12
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    @JonCuster Well, that’s a different question from whether it should be destroyed by someone, but I’m altering the final line to avoid being distracting and make this appear less opinion-based. If you have information on the uniformity of this system or lack there of, I’d certainly be interested to hear it. Mar 10, 2021 at 0:26
  • A long time-to-degree can have plenty of reasons, some of them well-justified, and from the outside it might be hard to distinguish a lottery-player from someone with valid reasons. Mar 10, 2021 at 9:15

3 Answers 3


Like most administrative things which don't seem to make sense, it boils down to accounting and financial aid. Students can take federal financial aid and withdraw from individual classes provided they maintain at least half time status. There are a bunch of caveats & rules and making sure everyone's complying and not accidentally (or intentionally) embezzling requires record keeping.


Dropping a course after University census date will generally result in receiving a withdrawal indicator of “W” on your transcript. If you had already received your financial aid for the term, this generally will not result in a change to your financial aid, so long as you do not withdraw from all classes.


Most financial aid will not be adjusted for hour drops after the Student Financial Aid census date. All hours for which you are enrolled as of the fourth Saturday of the term or which you schedule thereafter, will be counted as “hours attempted” for determination of whether you are making Satisfactory Academic Progress for financial aid.

There's no other long term way to prove that the initial financial aid disbursement was correct than a transcript imo and any alternative will just be more complicated and probably screw people years down the line.

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    I’ve removed my earlier comments which were based mainly on different quotes at different links than those you’ve now shared. I can now see the argument you’re making, that a W indicates “attended long enough”, that that’s often sufficient to verify aid decisions, and that the transcript may have been the obvious place to stick that administrative record, since it was already available. I do think there’s more to the W and that I really wanted to analyze the arguments for treating W’s as evidence of academic low performance, but I may not have asked the right question. Mar 10, 2021 at 13:02

A transcript is a record of all academic activity, not only completed courses.

Academically, you want to keep track of students who might require additional guidance because they eventually drop too many courses.

Administratively there are many reasons to keep W’s around. One is that the student is (very likely) declared to funding entities (v.g. states) and thus the university will receive per-credit funding for this student even if he/she has withdrawn. Where I work, the last day to withdraw without penalty (i.e. no W) is the day before student enrolment totals are submitted to the government.

In addition, there are a number of logistical issues also tied to good reporting of enrolment. The student still “requires” resources from the University to stay in the course: actual room allocation requires a headcount not only students who finish the course but also student who remain in the class for an extended period. TA allocation also requires a headcount that is not limited to students taking a final exam. The best way to keep track of this is by having an explicit mention that the course was taken but not completed.

I don’t know of any faculty that “dumbs down” a course because of possible W’s in a course. On the other hand, a course with consistently many W’s may indicate the need for reflection on the part of the Chair or the instructor.

Note that W (or any grade for that matter) is not necessarily a fair reflection of anything but punctual student performance. If you are sick to your stomach on the day before a midterm, or if you a have a strong fever two days before, the odds are you will underperform.

It is regrettable that marks are too often taken out of context and used as a proxy for an evaluation of a person rather than their more limited indicator of the performance of this person in a class as evaluated through tests, assignments, exams etc. without knowledge of the circumstances under which such tests were made.

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    A transcript is a record of all academic activity Sure, but this just begs the question. Why should all academic activity about a student be reportable? Mar 14, 2021 at 5:06
  • This is apparently the case in at least some of the US, but by no means is it universal: my own undergraduate transcript makes no mention of the many modules that I did not take to the exams (many of which decisions were made after all teaching for the course had ended, and some only a few weeks before the exam dates). Mar 14, 2021 at 8:47
  • @ElizabethHenning for funding of course, given that many funding schemes are tied to student activity. Mar 14, 2021 at 17:15
  • @user3482749 it is NOT universal, although in some cases a thoughtful discussion of keeping W’s around has not been made. I’m sure a sly administrator can come up with better rationale than I can. Mar 14, 2021 at 17:17

The only (very weak) justification I can see for W grades is that students who can afford to take courses multiple times will have higher GPAs than students who can't.

But aside from this and the enrollment status issue, I'm inclined to agree that the honest justification is essentially punitive, since a lot of faculty would object that it's "not fair" to allow students to drop without consequence if a course is going poorly. I think it just reflects a more generally punitive attitude that US higher education has towards students, especially when it comes to sorting them as "good" or "bad" students. As further evidence of this, note there is no distinction made between a W incurred for medical reasons and one incurred because a student blew off a course.

  • Sure but then they pay more in tuition and in additions spend extra years not earning income, so there’s no real advantage in systematically accumulating W’s unless you are from a really affluent background. Note that where I work students can petition to withdraw on medical grounds in which case there is no record of registration and thus no W on the transcript. Mar 14, 2021 at 17:20
  • Along the line of "it's not the same everywhere", I will note that my institution has a grade of 'EW', for "Excused Withdrawal", designed for situations like the medical withdrawal you mention. Mar 15, 2021 at 19:05
  • @KevinArlin Interesting. How does the school get around violating the student's medical privacy when sending out the transcript? Mar 15, 2021 at 20:19
  • @ElizabethHenning Well, it’s not only for medical emergencies. Military deployments and a few other circumstances beyond the student’s control also count. Mar 15, 2021 at 21:04

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