Grade inflation is rampant on nearly every college campus, and that reduces the ability of employers or graduate schools to discriminate among applications. This is made even harder by the tendency of schools to stop using standardized tests (e.g., the SAT for getting into undergraduate school and the GREs for getting into grad school). What can you do when “all must have prizes”? How do you choose the best person?
While professors at the University of Chicago have also participated in grade inflation over the last few decades, the administration (and the faculty governing bodies) have resisted loosening academic standards. In fact, they have just tightened them in two ways. First, according to the student newspaper, the Chicago Maroon, the requirements for making the “dean’s list”—a traditional honor given to American college students whose grades are above a certain threshold)—have been changed:
The College has also changed the requirements for the Dean’s List. Students who have a GPA in the top 20 percent of all undergraduates will be placed on the list at the end of the year. Previously, any student with a cumulative GPA above 3.25 for that year earned a spot on the Dean’s List.
The University made these changes by updating a section of the College’s Course Catalog. No general announcement was made to the student body.
In other words, this change, which restricts honors to only 20% of the students (still a remarkably high percentage compared to what I would consider “honor worthy”, and also lower than many other top colleges), may well render some students “dean’s-list-ineligible” compared to previous years. I suspect, given grade inflation, that the 20% cutoff will indeed render fewer students eligible for Dean’s List honors than previously.
Further, the College has initiated “Latin Honors”: that is, ranking the best-achieving students as “summa cum laude”, “magna cum laude”, and “cum laude” on their diplomas, also an honor that you can put on your c.v. In this case there are also cutoffs, but assessment is based on more than just grades. They’ve also created a class of honors for second-year students (my emphases in all statements below):
All students with GPAs in the top 25 percent of their major compared to a five-year average will graduatecum laude. Students in the top 15 percent and top eight percent will be eligible to graduate magna cum laude and summa cum laude, respectively, depending on a College committee’s decision. They will “review each student’s record to gauge broad engagement with the curriculum.”
The top 10 percent of second years by GPA will be recognized as “Robert Maynard Hutchins Scholars,” which “is designed to honor students who have performed exceptionally in their core courses and introductory courses for their major,” according to the Course Catalog.
I’m not sure what “broad engagement with the curriculum” means, but presumably it involves not just grades, but what courses you took. If you took easy “gut courses”, presumably you’d have less chance to get Latin Honors.
Well, so be it. But of course some students don’t like these changes. In a column in the paper, second-year author Elizabeth Winkler has several beefs:
The administration did not announce the changes—the student body wasn’t notified, and moreover, three faculty members I reached out to said they were not notified as well, nor did the University publish a press release. Instead, they updated the College Catalogue. This lack of communication reflects as poorly on the administration as do the changes themselves, which are neither consistent with the honors policies of other top Universities nor, more importantly, in the best interests of students’ already-challenged mental health.
Well, yes, perhaps the College could have announced the changes more openly, but that’s the only criticism I agree with. The rest of Winkler’s beefs are along the lines of the last sentence above: the changes will challenge the students’ already-challenged mental health!
Presumably being at the University of Chicago is a prima facie challenge to one’s mental health! I vehemently disagree; it should be a liberating experience. But if if getting on the Dean’s List is your main priority, then you need to reassess those priorities. Yes, you can work hard to excel, or you can work hard because you love knowledge and want to cram as much as you can into your noggin during the one time in your life when most people can concentrate on their intellect, but you shouldn’t work hard simply to get on the Dean’s list or to win a summa cum laude on your diploma. Granted, getting honors is one part of excelling, but the acquisition of hard-won knowledge and analytical skills, and the thrill of a new realization, are the best parts of excelling.
Winkler continues to carp:
Why is it important for students to be able to self-assess whether or not they make the Dean’s List? Because I predict that not having a clear GPA cutoff will make students even more preoccupied with grades than they already are, and will cause them to struggle with more stress and uncertainty than they currently face. Given that University-provided mental health resources continue to be subpar, there’s no reason UChicago needs to add any extra stress to students’ plates.
Umm. . . . if students don’t know the grade-point cutoff, it seems to me that would make them less preoccupied with grades, as they don’t know what grade point average (GPA) they have to get to get on the Dean’s List! To many, like Jon Haidt, students are largely engaged in casting themselves as mental-health victims because they have to work in college. (There are other causes, too, like excessive parental pressure, engagement, and overprotectiveness.) Colleges, too, tend to pathologize students by emphasizing safe spaces, hate speech, and microaggressions, but thankfully we have little of that at the University of Chicago.
As for the Latin Honors, Ms. Winkler decries their inception as well, saying that it will somehow increase competition and thus detract from the panoply of activities that students could be engaging in, like making friends and enjoying the city of Chicago:
As laid out by the Catalogue, Latin honors will reward students for prioritizing academics over every other aspect of their lives [JAC: not true, see above where other factors are taken into account]—a disturbing prospect given how seriously I predict UChicago students will take the new awards. Students who care about these honors (and many will) will choose the highest-possible course load to maximize the “breadth and depth of [their] engagement with the curriculum outside of their primary major.” Instead of making new friends, exploring the city of Chicago, or enriching their lives with other extracurricular experiences, students will tack on an extra major, make space for a minor, and sequester themselves in libraries and in their rooms.
In my year and a quarter at this school, I have searched for interpersonal connection and have cried when unable to find it. I have stayed up past midnight trying to balance a rigorous academic calendar and commitments to new RSOs, have become schedule-obsessed only to realize how terrible that is for my mental health. I am lucky enough to have found wonderful friends in my house; yet, at times, I have still felt isolated, sad, frustrated, like I am fighting to create and maintain friendships with people from classes and RSOs. I know that many of my peers have also felt this way.
Would she then concur that all honors should be abolished? Wouldn’t that ease her burden? But that won’t work, either, because what employers really look at is tangible accomplishments, both in the form of grade-point averages and projects you’ve done. And if you’re aiming at graduate school, those places also look at student application essays, research done, and a host of other factors indicating how well you’d do in schools aimed at producing academics, lawyers, doctors, and so on.
The Maroon reports that the student government also passed a “resolution” about two weeks ago, urging the College to reconsider these changes and consult with the students if they want to make such changes. The Google document showing the resolution adds—and there might be some justification for this, but not a strong one—that any changes should not apply to current students at the college, but begin with next year’s entering class. Regardless, there is simply no reason for the college to consult with students to determine what honors should be conferred on what percentage of students. Can you imagine how that might turn out? All must have prizes!
And some STEM majors are complaining that—presumably because grades are lower in science-related courses—it makes it harder for them to get on the Dean’s List compared to, say, students in sociology, gender studies, and other non-science disciplines:
Second-year biological chemistry major Max Cohen said that the changes make the Dean’s List “more meaningful for those who are on it” but also “makes it even more difficult for STEM majors to achieve.”
“Achieve”? What he means is “achieve getting on the Dean’s list”. Every other criterion of achievement in science, including getting a decent grade, doing a project, publishing your work, and having the stupendous experience of finding out, through independent research, something that nobody has ever found before—all of these achievements aren’t affected at all.
You can tell me, “OK Boomer”, but that’s not an argument. What alarms me is the way college is now being pathologized, as if being in school itself is like being in a mental-health ward. I worked my butt off in college, and wound up as the valedictorian, but I never felt mentally ill, and didn’t work for the grades. In fact, until I was a well along in school I didn’t even have any thought about what I wanted to do in life. I just loved biology. I also loved fine arts, philosophy, Greek tragedy, and all the other courses that were new to me and that I was required to choose among in a liberal-arts curriculum.
I’m not saying that all students should do what I did, but I am saying that they should follow their inclinations and their hearts and not worry all the time about grades. And why on earth waste precious time protesting the University’s policy on honors, not to mention how the college cafeteria cooks General Tso’s chicken?