Does the Dean’s List matter? A look at academic ranking

As we enter our second semester, GPAs and class ranks shake out, and select upperclassmen receive congratulation letters from Phi Beta Kappa regarding their earning Dean’s List. With all these rankings based on a subjective grading system, we have to wonder: does it all matter? This feature takes a look at the importance of the Dean’s List.

At Colby, the Dean’s List recognizes the students with the top 30 percent of GPAs of the entire student body. Only those who have earned at least 15 academic credits, 12 of which must be graded, are eligible for the list.

But the Dean’s List doesn’t differentiate between class years. At first glance, this may seem like an unbalanced system; first-years taking introductory courses are evaluated under the same parameters as seniors in upper level seminars.

However, according to the Registrar’s Office, the top 30 percent of students who make the list are almost equally represented across the class years. Last semester, a total of 542 students made the Dean’s List, of which 27 percent were seniors, 21 percent were juniors, 27 percent were sophomores, and 25 percent were first-years.

For the last several semesters, this remains the trend: for the Spring of 2014, a total of 432 students made the list; of them, seniors made up 23 percent, juniors 24 percent, sophomores 29 percent, and first-years 24 percent. The Fall and Spring of 2013 looked roughly the same, with only one class year ever falling below 20 percent in that timeframe.

Thus, fears regarding each class’s opportunity to make the list are unfounded. Associate Registrar Valerie Sirois said that prior to the 2006-2007 academic year, the college policy for the Dean’s List was an average of a 3.2 GPA (3.0 for first-years), and students were only eligible if they had received a minimum of 12 credits. In an email correspondence, Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs and Associate Dean of Faculty Paul Greenwood wrote that approximately 70 percent of students were making the Dean’s List under those parameters. He wrote, “The college decided to change the requirements for Dean’s List because it had lost its overall meaning….The principal purpose of the Dean’s List is to provide public recognition for our students who achieve the highest levels of academic excellence (as measured by grades) each semester.”

Similar to class year, the Dean’s List does not differentiate between majors, nor does the Registrar’s Office track the distribution of majors in the list. In a brief survey the Echo conducted, some students expressed that very concern: “Everyone’s major and path is completely different, with differing levels of difficulty. To judge them on the same quantitative scale is, in a word, silly.” Another responded, “There’s too much variability between departments and grading styles, and I don’t think it’s entirely fair to have a dean’s list that’s subjectively based on different grading styles.”

Despite the concerns regarding the subjectivity of grading and the relative challenge of each major (also a subjective comparison), 81 percent of respondents (78 out of 96) said that they think the College should have a Dean’s List. One respondent wrote, “People should be recognized for their academic achievements even if they don’t reach Phi Beta Kappa or get awards within their major.” Another said, “I think it may motivate students to do well and it’s fair for those students who do well to be recognized.”

Another wrote, “I think we should have a standard set GPA to make the Dean’s List, which anyone could achieve. I don’t think students should have to compete against each other particularly across different disciplines and class years to be in a certain percentage.”

The survey also addressed the issue of competition; 43 percent believe that Colby students are “a little bit competitive” and 27 percent believe that students “are competitive.” One student wrote that the Dean’s List “feels like…an unattainable goal because of how much competition there is by being defined by a number. This is a social construct that for some may define ‘who is smarter [than] the other,’ when in reality it is only showing who knows how to manipulate the system best this semester.”

Overall though, only 44 percent of respondents “actively try to make the list.” 43 percent chose “If I make it, that’s great, but otherwise I don’t worry about it,” and the remainder either selected “I don’t care or think about it” or “Other.” One student said, “I think people who work hard and achieve good grades should be recognized for their efforts. I don’t think it makes people who don’t make the list feel bad or angry. It’s more like, if you don’t make it, there’s always a next time and everyone has a fair shot at making it on the list.”

Regarding the list, Greenwood wrote, “Recognizing the students who have achieved the very highest levels of excellence at an institution such as Colby does not diminish the achievements of other students, nor does it diminish the institution’s continued expectation that our students will continue to strive for the highest levels of excellence (however they may define that). 

“Everyone should want to help each other out and strive [so] that everyone does well, instead of throwing GPA numbers and dean’s list around as if they mean something. Especially because a person with a 2.8 GPA can be a much more well-rounded person than a person with a 3.7.”

One student summed up the majority of respondents’ opinions on the list: “I think the role of the Dean’s List at Colby is largely peripheral. Most Colby students don’t seem to obsess about grades. When the topic does come up, the conversation almost invariably centers around GPA and class rankings, not who made the Dean’s List and who didn’t.”

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