April 17, 2023

MEHLER | Standardizing Graduating with Honors

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As my own graduation inches closer and closer, I began to investigate what graduating with honors looked across each of Cornell’s colleges and schools. Although previous The Cornell Daily Sun opinion columns have shared their frustrations with the system, I was surprised to learn just how different each college’s system was.

The “Proposal Regarding the Award of Honors and Distinctions to Cornell’s Undergraduate Students” presented to the Faculty Senate in Nov. 2021 collected a great deal of data on how each college decides to award honors. Much energy was directed towards the proposals regarding Dean’s List and subsequent discussions of median grades on transcripts. However, refocusing on the graduating with honors aspects has fallen through the cracks in recent years.

Between Cornell’s ten colleges and schools, standardizing anything is rare.  All requirements except a swim test and two physical education classes remain in the individual colleges’ control. However, the lack of standardization in graduating with honors plagues every Cornellian. At Cornell, graduating with honors can mean a student is in the top 1.6% of their class or the top 78.2%, depending on their major or college. With honors-granting systems ranging from GPA to theses to percentiles to distinctions, graduating with honors standardization does not exist.

At CALS and Dyson, a student with a 4.000 or higher GPA will graduate summa cum laude while a 3.750 to 3.999 will graduate magna cum laude, and a 3.500 to 3.749 will graduate cum laude. The same rules apply to Engineering, however, they include additional “distinctions” and “Major Honors” that vary by department. Similarly, Hotel uses a mirror system of 4.000+, 3.850-3.999, 3.750-3.849. In Arts & Sciences, Latin honors are determined by individual majors and departments.

But the other colleges do not even offer Latin honors. Brooks offers a thesis for students over a 3.3 GPA, Human Ecology’s departments offer theses for some as low as a 3.2 GPA, and ILR offers theses for those over a 3.7 GPA or Global Scholars for those who do specialized programming and are above a 3.6 GPA. AAP students follow their major’s standards which vary for both overall GPA and major GPA. Students graduating from Bowers currently follow their home college’s honors system as well.

Cornell’s size and age greatly contribute to a lack of standardization. Cornell’s undergraduate population and broad range of programs surpasses many of our Ivy League peers; there are more graduating seniors at Cornell than the entire undergraduate population of Dartmouth. A lack of uniformity of programs originates from Cornell’s long standing commitment to “any person, any study” as Cornell continues to add new colleges and schools; the College of Engineering was founded in 1870, the School of Industrial and Labor Relations in 1945 and the Brooks School of Public Policy in 2021. With each new college, decision-making on graduation with honors has splintered and uniformity has been strewn further apart.

Additionally, degree conferring determinations, including honors, have been delegated to each college’s faculty. For example, despite seven of the ten colleges offering Latin honors, the ILR faculty have said that it “has decided not to award honorary degrees – known as the “Latin honors: (cum laude, magna cum laude and summa cum laude) but rather to permit outstanding students to graduate with honors if they complete a two-semester Honors Thesis Project.” For faculty insistent on thesis work resulting in honors, standardization would dismantle that.

But why does a lack of standardization cause problems? No standardization for graduation with honors means that students with the same GPAs, same majors and same percentile ranking are being awarded differently based on their college, not based on Cornell. This inequity hurts students as they apply for the same jobs, scholarships, and graduate schools.

The University Trustees hold supreme power over the University, and they could solve this problem by standardizing graduation with honors through a university-wide GPA-based approach and a concurrent class percentile-based approach. Doing so would decrease the excessive number of students graduating honors in some programs while increasing it in programs with a low percentage.

Summa cum laude would be awarded to students with a 4.000 and higher GPA as well as to those in the top 10% of the University; magna cum laude would be 3.850 to 3.999 or top 20% and cum laude at 3.7000 to 3.849 or top 30%. By engaging the Trustees’ ultimate authority, a more equitable approach to honoring a fair number of students at Cornell would emerge. A GPA and percentile system ensures that all graduating students are eligible for honors, including those who might graduate early and be unable to complete a thesis.

Additionally, this system would still allow colleges to award non-honorific distinctions to students in their programs through additional work, such as a thesis or other research.  Although some power would be reclaimed by the Trustees in mandating a university-wide honors system, continued delegation of distinction authority would empower individual college faculty to further recognize through a thesis or other academic activities as they see fit.

The issue of unstandardized graduation honors harms thousands of students every May, and this lack of standardization is a byproduct of Cornell’s great mission. However, the Trustees, or even the Faculty Senate, can create a more uniform and equitable honors system university-wide that supports more students while simultaneously supporting a continued empowerment of the faculty.

Patrick J. Mehler is a senior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He can be reached at [email protected]. The Mehl-Man Delivers runs every other Monday this semester.