October 23, 2001

Honors Statistics Show Ivies' Grade Inflation

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Most Cornellians have heard the adage, “Cornell is the easiest Ivy school to get accepted into, but the hardest to graduate from.” Though often heard jokingly, this statement is hardly unfounded: on average in 2001, 43 percent of Ivy League seniors (not including University of Pennsylvania, which does not release honors information) graduated with honors as compared to only eight percent of Cornell students.

Harvard University led the pack, recognizing a school-record 91 percent of students graduating with honors. Columbia bestows only 25 percent of its seniors with honors distinction,

“As far as how I feel as a Harvard alum (of 40 years ago), it’s what any college professor would feel wherever they graduated from: it seems a little silly when 91 percent get honors,” said Isaac Kramnick, vice provost of undergraduate education and R.J. Schwartz professor of government.

At Cornell, the requirements for graduating with honors vary by college. The School of Hotel Administration only bestows honors distinction to a certain percentage of students in the graduating class. In the class of 2000, 23 out of 237 student graduated with honors, representing the top 10 percent of the class by grade point average (GPA).

Of the 398 graduates from the College of Human Ecology last year, the top 10 percent by GPA received degrees with distinction, while eight percent received honors. A bachelor of science degree with honors requires students to take research-related courses, attend honors seminars, complete a written thesis, and defend the thesis in an oral examination, according to the University’s Courses of Study.

In the College of Arts and Sciences, students may also graduate with honors and with distinction. Departmental honors — including summa cum laude, magna cum laude or cum laude — are offered to students who have demonstrated exceptional ability in the major and who have completed original independent research, according to Courses of Study. Of the 1,086 students who graduated last year, 16 percent received degrees with honors.

Students in Arts and Sciences will graduate with distinction if they fulfill certain requirements, such as belonging to the upper 30 percent of their class by GPA at the end of the seventh semester. Last year, these graduates earned grade point averages above 3.543.

Other universities, which have different policies on graduating with honors, do not necessarily calculate an official GPA or determine the official class rank.

“The University of Pennsylvania does not compute class rank and we do not report relative [honors] statistics because it could prejudice the applications of our graduates,” said Bernard Lentz, director of institutional research and analysis for the University of Pennsylvania.

Princeton University, where 45 percent of students graduated with honors in 2001, does not calculate official GPAs, though many departments still determine this all-important number.

“Each individual department may calculate grade point average, and the departments may individually determine which students graduate with honors,” said Jennifer Bronson, acting deputy registrar at Princeton.

The Operations Research and Financial Engineering department at Princeton, for example, determines GPA cutoffs for students graduating with honors depending on the strength of the class, according to an office representative. This resulted in recognizing just over 50 percent of 2001 graduates with honors.

By comparison, in English and molecular biology — typical pre-law or pre-med majors — 34 percent and 42 percent, respectively, graduated with honors at Princeton.

Students said believe that Cornell’s distinctive standards will prepare them for the future.

“Students compete to get into nursery school, primary school, high school and then Ivy schools, and each stage they have to present their credentials: grades and honors but honors cannot speak for itself anymore [where honors are given to a large percentage of students],” Kramnick said.

“Cornell’s difficulty motivates you to work harder, so that when you come out of here you have a stronger work ethic,” said Laura Troiola ’03. “Graduating with honors should be a distinction, not something given out to everyone.”

Archived article by Peter Lin