Wednesday, February 29, 2012


Has your college found a reasonably elegant way to handle grades of “incomplete?”

We’re struggling, and I know we’re not alone.  I’m hoping that crowdsourcing the question will lead to a better idea.

The idea behind the “incomplete” grade, at least at the undergraduate level, is to allow students who had some sort of real personal emergency a chance to finish a course once the emergency has passed.  The textbook example is the student who gets into a car accident shortly before finals, and can’t make it to the exam because he’s hospitalized.  Most of us, I hope, would agree that giving that student a zero on the exam would be needlessly mean.  So the instructor can offer an Incomplete, and give the student a chance to finish the class for a grade once he has recovered.

The Incomplete comes with an expiration date; if the work doesn’t get done by a particular date, the grade reverts to an “F.”  It’s not a Get Out of Jail Free card; it’s just an extension.

When the “I” grade works well, the expectations are clear, the amount missing is small, and the resolution is quick.  Under those circumstances, the “I” grade isn’t really an issue.

But it isn’t always that easy.

Some people give “I” grades without actually talking to the student first.  It’s a mercy grade, on the assumption that surely, Johnny wouldn’t have skipped the final without a good reason.  This seeming act of mercy – which I have no doubt is well-intended – actually has serious ripple effects throughout the college.

For one, it wreaks havoc with prerequisites.  If Johnny would have received, say, a C without the final, but he gets an Incomplete instead, then he isn’t eligible to move on to the next course in the sequence.  He would have been eligible with the C.  By the time the “I” gets resolved, it’s either too far into the subsequent semester to take the next course, or all the seats in the next course are taken.

If Johnny received financial aid, the picture is even murkier.  The financial aid office has to assume that Johnny simply walked away.  If the professor didn’t note a last date of attendance, then Johnny’s aid may be cut.  Had Johnny received the C, his aid would have been fine.

The “I” grade doesn’t immediately count against a student’s GPA, but it does count against the Satisfactory Academic Progress that a student has to maintain to keep aid eligibility.  Depending on what else he took and how he did, Johnny may lose academic eligibility for financial aid even before the eventual “F” is posted.

But the real nightmare is the professor who assigns “I” grades unilaterally, and then vanishes. At that point, even determining what’s missing -- let alone what an appropriate grade would be -- becomes a serious challenge.

I need to clarify here that I’m working in the context of undergraduates.  Grad school incompletes are another animal entirely.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen ways for a college to keep the option of the “I” grade without falling into these traps?