US universities stop publishing deans’ lists

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Deans’ lists have long been a staple of American higher education, each semester trumpeting the names of top-achieving students on college websites and in local newspapers.

But among Ivy League institutions, that tradition appeared to be ending. Last autumn, both Cornell University and the University of Pennsylvania stopped releasing deans’ lists in an effort to reduce students’ academic stress.

“This decision is the culmination of extensive consultations over several years across the Penn community, including with undergraduate student leaders, in response to the shared belief that a Dean’s List designation does not reflect the breadth and evolution of students’ academic achievements over the course of their education at Penn,” Beth A. Winkelstein, UPenn’s then interim provost, and Karen Detlefsen, vice-provost for education, wrote in an announcement about the change last spring.

Cornell and Penn aren’t alone. Brown University hasn’t had a dean’s list since it moved to its current open curriculum academic model in the late 1960s. Harvard last published a dean’s list in 2002. Columbia still maintains a dean’s list for each of its undergraduate colleges, but it is currently re-evaluating that practice and certain other honours, according to a university official.

Reducing competition

The move to eliminate deans’ lists comes at a time when some universities are working to address a culture of perfectionism on campus, where students feel pressured to earn the highest grades, participate in the most extracurriculars or land the most elite internships. Research has shown that such a culture can affect students’ mental health because they might feel inadequate if they are unable to meet their lofty goals.

That was a key reason why the associate deans’ council at Cornell initially recommended removing the lists, according to Lisa Nishii, the institution’s vice-president for undergraduate education.

“It was believed that having many types of awards based solely on grades exacerbates stress and anxiety for students, perpetuates an obsession with grades and makes students feel that they are in competition with each other,” she wrote in an email to Inside Higher Ed. “Students’ obsession with grades can impact their choice of courses and make them less likely to take risks in their course selections. A more measured approach affords recognition for academic achievement but does not promote an undue and constant emphasis on grades.”

The university is taking a similar step in removing the median grade for each course from student transcripts – a move the faculty senate approved in December. The inclusion of median grades can lead to unhealthy competition, Professor Nishii said, and dissuade students from taking classes with low numbers, which goes against Cornell’s “fundamental principle of learning for the sake of learning”.

Another factor contributing to Cornell’s decision to abolish deans’ lists was variability among the colleges in determining who should earn a spot. According to a faculty senate resolution regarding the issue, such inconsistencies led to “confusion and perceived or actual inequities” among students and leave recruiters wondering how “to interpret Cornell transcripts”.

‘War against individual achievement’?

Students’ responses to the demise of deans’ lists have been mixed. Some see such policy changes as attacks on meritocracy, likening them to handing out participation trophies. Lexi Boccuzzi, a former columnist at The Daily Penn, Penn’s student newspaper, argued in an editorial that removing the dean’s list reflected an academic culture that no longer valued competition and achievement, something that other online commentators agreed with.

“The war against individual achievement continues unabated,” one Penn alum wrote on a forum regarding the decision.

Ms Boccuzzi also noted in her editorial that deans’ lists can be motivating.

“While Latin honours are designated upon graduation, the dean’s list is an award that can allow students to feel gratified during their Penn experience and feel a sense of accomplishment at the end of each year,” she wrote. “It provides a short-term goal to strive for and an opportunity to restart and try again after a difficult academic year.”

On the other hand, Suraj Parikh, vice-president for external affairs for Cornell’s student government organisation, said that the change had gone virtually unnoticed by most students since it went into effect last semester. The university is phasing out the honour with each graduating class and it will be fully discontinued in the spring of 2026.

Appearing on the dean’s list is considered a less valuable metric than one’s actual grade point average, he said, and few students seemed to take particular pride in the recognition.

“Before this topic came up, I don’t think I mentioned the dean’s list to anyone,” said Mr Parikh, a senior in Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. “It didn’t come up in conversation. If they hadn’t sent me an email that I was on it, I would’ve missed it.”

This is an edited version of a story that first appeared on Inside Higher Ed. 

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