Making the (Letter) Grade: The Incentive Effects of Mandatory Pass/Fail Courses
In Fall 2014, Wellesley College began mandating pass/fail grading for courses taken by first-year, first-semester students, although instructors continued to record letter grades. We identify the causal effect of the policy on course choice and performance, using a regression-discontinuity-in-time design. Students shifted to lower-grading STEM courses in the first semester, but did not increase their engagement with STEM in later semesters. Letter grades of first-semester students declined by 0.13 grade points, or 23% of a standard deviation. We evaluate causal channels of the grade effect—including sorting into lower-grading STEM courses and declining instructional quality—and conclude that the effect is consistent with declining student effort.