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Cornell is the only Ivy League university to include incomplete designations on transcripts after another grade has been assigned.

October 16, 2023

Faculty Senate Proposes Eliminating Permanent Incomplete Designations on Transcripts

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Cornell University’s grading system today relies upon standards adopted by the Faculty Senate in 1965. However, permanent incomplete designations after students fulfill makeup requirements may soon be forgone on transcripts due to a resolution presented at the Oct. 11 Faculty Senate meeting.

An incomplete grade indicates when a “student has a substantial equity at a passing level in the course with respect to work completed [and] has been prevented by circumstances beyond the student’s control, such as illness or family emergency, from completing all the course requirements on time,” according to the University’s grading system.

If the student does not fulfill set makeup requirements, as determined by the instructor of the course, the incomplete will continue to hold an INC designation or switch to a grade of F, depending on the college. If the student does fulfill the makeup requirements, however, the incomplete designation will permanently remain with an asterisk designation along with the new grade submitted.

Cornell is currently the only Ivy League university to include incomplete designations on transcripts when another grade has been assigned, according to the resolution.

“From what we can see, it doesn’t appear that the [grading] policy has been reviewed in part or in whole since its inception,” said Prof. Lisa Nishii, industrial and labor relations, who also serves as the vice provost for undergraduate education and is one of the sponsors for the resolution. “[Since] Cornell is the only Ivy that notes this on the transcript… our students may be disadvantaged relative to students from other institutions.”

The resolution proposes that the incomplete designation only become a permanent part of a transcript if another grade has not been subsequently submitted. The resolution still allows for permanent INC or F grades if a student is unable to complete makeup work.

Nishii emphasized that a student is not at fault in cases that facilitate an incomplete designation.

“The argument here is [that the student] shouldn’t be punished for a setback that is out of their control by having this permanent notation that could lead other people who are reading their transcript to have incorrect assumptions [or] make incorrect inferences about why the asterisk might be there,” Nishii said.

Permanent incomplete designations, Nishii said, pressure students into disclosing private information, such as pregnancy and serious illness, to contextualize their transcript. Nishii also said a transcript reader will still know all important information from a transcript without the existing permanent incomplete designation policy, since students would still need to complete all makeup work to eliminate the designation.

“If the student has completed [the makeup work] on time, then the grade will be reflected for the work that they have completed for the course,” Nishii said.

The proposal backing the resolution also states that since asterisks to indicate incomplete designations are entered manually by each Cornell college registrar’s office, “there is both lax and inconsistent implementation of the required notation across Cornell colleges and schools,” presenting inequity.

“The registrars are required to [notate transcripts with asterisks] throughout the semester, frequently at times, such as near the end of a semester, when they have many other immediate demands and deadlines,” the proposal states.

Implementation needs to be done manually, meaning that it is labor-intensive and subject to mistakes.

“According to the University Registrar, the process of notating transcripts cannot be automated, even with advanced technology. Nor is it possible to verify compliance in any efficient manner — [such as] through technology,” the proposal states. “Given that implementation is and will remain labor intensive and burdensome and is easily subject to error, it is unrealistic to expect that implementation would improve sufficiently to become consistent across colleges/schools.”

The grading system system documentation acknowledges that students may utilize incomplete designations for unintended reasons.

“The ‘incomplete’ privilege is open to abuse; by deferring completion of some major course requirement, a student can gain advantage over his or her classmates by obtaining additional time to do a superior job,” the grading system documentation states.

During the question and answer portion of the meeting, Prof. Hadas Ritz, mechanical and aerospace engineering, said she frequently encounters students who say they are overwhelmed and want to take an incomplete designation in a course due to instances of mental illness or crisis.

“I don’t feel like I’m really in a position to evaluate whether [instances of mental illness are] a valid kind of illness outside of the student’s control. So I’m wondering whether having some sort of consequence to taking an incomplete [designation] does diminish those asks, or I don’t know if there’s any kind of University advice on how to handle those asks,” Ritz said.

Nishii responded to Ritz by explaining that faculty will not lose the ability to assess patterns of incompletion since a new feature was implemented in PeopleSoft — a platform used to monitor and manage students — to see the history of grades, including changes from incomplete to a different grade. Nishii, however, acknowledged that determining when incomplete designations are valid is difficult.

“[It is up to] faculty to make that judgment [to provide incomplete designations], given the circumstances and what they know,” Nishii said.