Passing By Catastrophe: If a College Is Physically Destroyed, What Will Happen?

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When people say that a lot of things can happen in college, they usually don’t mean the death of a classmate or the destruction of a school. But in life, there are so many contingencies that you just can’t predict what happens. And tragedy won’t wait for you to finish your degree before it strikes.

Take, for example, this hypothetical scenario. Suppose that a force of nature (e.g. a destructive earthquake, a tidal wave, avalanche, flood, or sinkhole) destroyed your college or university’s buildings. Would you, according to rumors, be given a degree with no questions asked?

Pass By Catastrophe

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The belief that a student can get passing grades (or even their own college diploma) without doing anything stems from the “Pass by Catastrophe” urban legend. This is a claim that if you, your class, or the entire school witness a catastrophic event, the academic institution will understand why your performance will be affected. As a result, they will automatically award you with passing grades since they do not want to punish you for performing poorly in the midst of a catastrophe.

Some examples of this urban legend include the belief that if someone in a class dies right before an exam, all the other students will be given a passing grade. If a student is hit by a vehicle owned by the school, they will receive free tuition for the rest of their academic stay. And, if a university’s campus is destroyed, all students (even freshmen) will graduate and receive their Bachelor’s degree – no questions asked, regardless of educational background.

This belief might have been an urban legend for a long time, but it became popular when the film Dead Man on Campus first made a movie about the urban legend in 1998. In the film, two college roommates need to have passing grades by the end of the year but realize that, due to their poor performance in the first half of the year, it is impossible for them to pass. However, they learn about a secret rule in their college that if a student’s roommate commits suicide, that student will get a perfect grade at the end of the school year. They then set off to find a roommate who has a high chance of committing suicide so that they both pass.

Is the Urban Legend Real?

If you’re now considering setting up a catastrophe for yourself to save your grade, think again. Jan Harold Brunvand, a researcher who popularized the concept of urban legends, investigated the Pass By Catastrophe claims but could not find any post-secondary educational institution that had such a rule.

However, that’s not to say that colleges and universities will not give considerations to students undergoing a personal tragedy or catastrophe. For example, if a student’s parent died in the week of exams, some professors may be lenient and set a special exam for them at a later date. In the United Kingdom’s Joint Council for Qualifications, for example, a candidate can apply for Special Consideration for their score if they are temporarily injured or indisposed at the time of their examination.

The most recent example is when the Hong Kong Riots of 2019. When the Hong Kong police destroyed the university during the riots and the risks of students making their way to the campus, the university ended the term early. However, the university’s press release does not explicitly say whether or not students will receive an automatic pass for all their unfinished classes.

What Happens If a University Gets Physically Destroyed?

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We’ve established that a university won’t automatically give you a diploma or a passing grade due to a personal tragedy. However, what if your university’s campus is physically destroyed and unable to hold classes? Since it’s no one’s fault, would it be possible to just get a diploma?

This is highly unlikely. First of all, colleges and universities in the United States are governed by the Department of Education. They cannot hand a diploma to just any student (this would be what is known as a Diploma Mill) and a student must graduate with a certain number of completed units. So, if one university is destroyed by a catastrophe, they may either wait for the university to rebuild or transfer to another school to finish their studies.

And in this day and age of technology, it would be impossible for a modern academic institution to not carry a digital copy of your student records. Let’s say that a destructive earthquake damages your school’s infrastructure. However, your records are someone on the internet (possibly on a Cloud storage facility similar to Google Drive and Dropbox), and your university’s IT Department can easily recover your data. And if it’s clear that you are nowhere near finished to earning your degree, they will most likely make you continue with your real progress.

How your education in your institution will proceed after a disaster will depend on the university’s administration. Some may opt to hold their classes in a temporary location while they begin repairing or rebuilding. If a school has multiple locations or branches, it may hold classes into these buildings instead. If tragedy strikes towards the end of term or year, it may be possible for them to skip final exams and base your final grade off of something else.

Worst Case Scenarios

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But what if your school doesn’t have digital copies of your records or has lost some students’ data? Unfortunately, that means a student will have to find solid proof that they passed certain courses. For example, their professors may have old records in their computer showing their final grade – the professor’s testimony saying a student passed their course should be enough proof for university registrars.

However, there are cases when you may be unable to obtain this. For example, I know of a student whose record, through no one’s fault, showed that he had not yet completed a required course for his degree program. The registrar wanted proof of it, but he could not ask the professor as the professor passed a couple of years before the incident. As a result, he was forced to retake the course. In such cases, a person may be delayed in graduating.

So, to answer the question of what would happen if the campus was destroyed, the answer is simple: it depends on your school. It’s unlikely that the school has a rule automatically granting you a diploma, and they may already have contingencies in place in case of natural disasters. So, if you’re looking for a way to pass, this isn’t it.

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