One Princeton grading policy that engendered student criticism long before grade deflation is the option to take courses on a Pass/D/Fail (“P/D/F”) basis.

Once a semester for no more than four semesters, students can ask professors to give their cumulative coursework one of the three grades. Some students inevitably find themselves doing well enough to want to switch out of the P/D/F option; they can do so up until the ninth week of class — a deadline that students have intermittently denounced and tried to extend over the past several years.

But now the debate is shifting: Some student leaders worry that the P/D/F option itself is under threat.  

Professors have the authority to bar students from taking their courses on a P/D/F scale, and a study last spring by Jonathan Elist ’07 estimated that 40 percent of course offerings did not offer the option. Behind the increase, say professors, is a concern that students don’t try very hard in classes they’re taking P/D/F, and thus contribute less to the course than regularly graded students do.

“I do think that a majority of students who start out taking a course P/D/F begin to keep their efforts toward the course on a very, very low simmer starting around week four of the course,” said assistant English professor Zahid Chaudhary in an e-mail.

Associate philosophy professor Adam Elga ’96 added that No-P/D/F courses can gain “energy” and “momentum” from having more students who are “extremely motivated and ‘into’ the class.”

But students say this neglects the thinking behind the P/D/F option, which is that it allows students to take the intellectual risks they might shy away from under normal grading.

To counter the tide of No-P/D/F courses, the USG Academics Committee, led by Sarah Breslow ’08, is pushing for the issue to be considered by the Commit­tee on the Course of Study, the joint student-faculty group that oversees the undergraduate curriculum.

Dean of the College Nancy Weiss Malkiel, chairwoman of the committee, has indicated that the issue will get a serious look by the group this spring or next year. “We need to think carefully about what needs to be done [or] could be done to shore up the P/D/F option," Malkiel said.