February 1, 2022

LORENZEN | Proposed Reforms for Academic Honors Would Benefit Students

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This past November, Cornell revealed a proposal to create a new system governing how undergraduate honors and distinctions are awarded to students. As debate about the new proposal begins to gain steam, it’s worth unpacking the different parts of the administration’s new system. In my view, it’s a plan that — while imperfect — would dramatically improve the status quo. But before getting into an analysis of the proposed new policy, let’s lay out exactly what it is.

First off — who is proposing this, and who would it affect?

As outlined in the proposal, administrators across Cornell, including deans from all colleges and schools and the Provost,  initiated this shift. It’s a move that would apply to all undergraduate students.

What does the proposal include?

The three recommendations of the proposal are as follows:

  1. “Replace the diverse approaches to the award of Latin honors with a single approach so that all colleges and schools would confer Latin honors on the bases of percentiles in the colleges and schools, as follows: Summa cum laude – top 5%, Magna cum laude – next 10%, and Cum laude – next 15%;
  2. Eliminate dean’s list; and
  3. Eliminate non-Latin academic honors and distinctions that are determined solely based upon grade point average (GPA) and align the nomenclature used across colleges and schools by adopting a single naming convention for distinctions, “distinction in x,” as determined by each college, school, or major.”

Why were these changes proposed?

Different colleges at Cornell give out wildly different awards under wildly different criteria, leading to a great deal of confusion over the years. At many colleges, a Latin honor would mean the same thing for a student of any major, but at Cornell, it can mean completely different things for students in different colleges. Beyond creating confusion, it creates additional stress for students, leaving many feeling that the system isn’t fair. 

Let’s take a look at a hypothetical example. Two students graduate Cornell with the same GPA: 3.92. One student graduated from the College of Human Ecology and the other from the College of Engineering. Both are clearly high-achieving students, but only the Engineering student graduated with Latin honors. That must mean that the Engineering student had more academic success, right? Well, no. The College of Human Ecology simply doesn’t offer Latin honors.

Does that matter? Maybe not when it comes to employment or graduate school — future employers will likely see a student with a 3.92 GPA as high-achieving regardless of honors. Yet, it perpetuates a feeling of insecurity for students when even the most successful can look over at peers in other colleges and feel less accomplished by virtue of an arbitrary variation in academic procedures. It’s a source of unnecessary stress that just adds to Cornell’s cutthroat, burnout-inducing academic culture.

Beyond Latin honors, this applies to other distinctions, including Dean’s List. Colleges at Cornell have different GPA requirements for Dean’s List, leading to confusion over what the award means. Furthermore, Cornell is an outlier in the Ivy League when it comes to Dean’s List. Cornell and the University of Pennsylvania are the only universities that offer one — the other six schools do not.

What are some of the downsides of this plan?

In a statement posted on Jan. 25, Executive Vice-Chair of the Cornell University Assembly Jacob Feit ’22 offered support for the changes but with two critiques. While Feit agrees with most of the proposal, he criticized the plan to eliminate Dean’s List, instead calling for it to be reformed into a more holistic measure of student performance, including non-GPA factors. Feit argues that the Dean’s List helps students burnish their academic credentials without any downside to others, as it is not awarded relative to other students — it’s just a consistent GPA requirement. Feit points to median grades as the real problem in creating student stress, as their placement on Cornell transcripts “empirically punishes the bottom 50% of students in a particular course.”

Feit has a point here — median grades hurt the vast majority of students. Unless you are one of the rare people to attain a noticeably high grade in a low median class, the practice of placing a median grade on your transcript tends to have a neutral or negative effect. High grades in high median classes are viewed as less prestigious. Below-average grades are easily seen by graduate schools and employers. This grading system uniquely shines a spotlight on a student’s weak spots, making them less competitive after graduating Cornell. The University should be in the practice of being honest about a student’s academic qualifications, but not needlessly negative for no reason.

But that doesn’t mean that the Dean’s List shouldn’t be eliminated. While Feit and others are correct that Dean’s List could enhance a student’s resume without detracting from their peers, the benefit of the listing seems relatively negligible given that most other schools don’t bother to offer one. Moreover, Dean’s List tends to be uniquely damaging to student mental health. 

As it currently works in Arts & Sciences, for example, a student must take a minimum of 15 graded credits to qualify. For students taking a thesis course in their senior year, that means they have to take 15 graded credits plus their four ungraded thesis credits in order to qualify, totaling 19 credits. It incentivizes students to overload themselves more than they otherwise would.

Such wrinkles likely could be smoothed over with the type of reform that Feit suggests, but Dean’s List still would drive student stress. By focusing on a semester as its unit of analysis, students are penalized if their academic requirements align such that they must take several particularly difficult courses in one semester. Sometimes a slight dip in GPA during one semester doesn’t mean anything other than that student took some extra tough classes.

Rather than the Dean’s List being a harmless bonus award, it can serve as a detraction. The student who consistently gets Dean’s List every semester, but misses it one semester, has an unnecessary question mark on their transcript. It’s an award that doesn’t add much of an advantage to students who win it, doesn’t do a particularly good job of evaluating students’ actual performance and adds further stress at the margins. 

What’s the bottom-line? Is this a good proposal?

In my view, yes. The proposal would make a dramatic improvement on the current awards system. While it would be better if it also eliminated median grades as Feit and others have suggested, as it stands, it’s still an excellent starting point. 

More important than my opinion, however, is yours. This is a policy shift that would make a big impact on students. You should weigh in. Write to your student representatives. Talk to faculty senators. Tell me that my opinion is wrong. Make your voice heard.

Andrew V. Lorenzen is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected] When We’re Sixty Four runs every other Wednesday this semester.

Correction: the initial version of this article misstated the number of universities in the Ivy League; it is eight total universities, not seven.