Ever Heard of Grade Deflation? Columbia Dean’s List Takes 3.6

Archie Ingersoll was miffed. It was Friday, Nov. 16, and Mr. Sign Up For Our Daily Newsletter Sign Up Thank

Archie Ingersoll was miffed. It was Friday, Nov. 16, and Mr.

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Ingersoll, a junior at Columbia University, had learned that for only the

second time in his five semesters in Morningside Heights, he was not going to

make the Dean’s List.

Mr. Ingersoll, a member of Columbia’s hockey and crew teams,

hadn’t gotten any stupider, or taken some particularly grueling class, or

frittered away too many nights boozing at the West End, the famous dive on

Broadway. Rather, he was the victim of a sudden, rather traumatic change on

campus: This semester, Columbia has

raised the minimum G.P.A. that undergraduates need to make the Dean’s List from

a steady-energy 3.3 to comparatively butt-busting 3.6. 

Loosely translated, the new requirement means that A-minus

students still make the list, but B-plus students-like Mr. Innersole-are

bounced from honor to ignominy. Said Mr. Ingersoll: “I guess you could say I

was pissed off.”

Columbia’s decision represents a new tough-love effort to tackle

a long-brewing yet largely unresolved issue at many colleges and universities:

grade inflation. For years, academics as well as some students have complained

that the value of high grades has been diminished as teachers have shown a

reluctance to give low marks to inferior performances. Even when a pattern of

inflation is recognized, few universities have found ways to stop the rise.

But Columbia has been monitoring its own grading policies for

several years, and last year, a faculty-student group called the Committee on

Instruction noticed that more than half of the school’s undergraduates were

making Dean’s List, a citation that’s supposed to be reserved for distinguished

academic performance.

“The feeling was, ‘Is this really an honor?'” said Columbia’s

associate director of public affairs, Suzanne Tremil. Since additional analysis

revealed that a full third of the class had a G.P.A. of 3.6 or better, that was

selected as the new Dean’s List standard, Ms. Tremil said.

But the change has irked students at the university, now in its

last year under the watch of President George Rupp, who will be replaced next

fall by Lee Bollinger, the president of the University of Michigan at Ann

Arbor. While the Dean’s List isn’t life and death at Columbia, it is a goal to

many, and there are perks. Each student who makes the list receives a

commendation printed on gold-lettered stationery, and the school sends a

congratulatory note to the student’s parents and a letter to his or her

hometown newspaper.

“A lot of upperclassmen are sort of angry,” Peter Mondelli, a

sophomore music major, said of the new Dean’s List requirement.

Kristen Macellar, a senior film major, grumbled about the Dean’s

List change as she showed her mother, her uncle, and her teenage cousin-a

prospective applicant from Staten Island-around campus. 

“It’s getting really hard to get a B-plus,” Ms. Macellar said.

But that drew a quick response from Ms. Macellar’s mother, Paula: “Standards

are very important.  Without them we’d be

a lesser society, which is not good.”

“Thanks, mom, ” Kristen


“You have to do something ,” said the mother.

“But a lot of students don’t want it to be that high, because the

classes are already challenging,” said the daughter. “There’s no reason for the

standard to be an A-minus.”

The cousin, Kate Caruselle, shrugged. “It’s great that they’re

making it harder the year I want to

come here,” she said.

“It’s Columbia University. Why not?” Paula Macellar said.  “What do you want it to be- C?”

“It’s good to have high standards, but standards are already so

high,” said Kristen. She said she also expected to fall off the Dean’s List

now. “It’s really tense for people like me,” she said.

Several members of the faculty interviewed by The Observer said they saw no problem

with the change. Joan Ferrante, a professor of English, said the leap from 3.3

to 3.6 didn’t “sound exorbitant.” At the same time, Ms. Ferrante said that her

students are mostly quite good, and had no trouble accepting that half of them

made the Dean’s List.  “I think that’s

definitely possible,” she said.

But students also complained that they weren’t notified of the

change to the Dean’s List requirements, which was decided upon last semester

but only implemented now. “I think it’s really, um, curious , that they didn’t tell the students,” Mr. Ingersoll

said.  “It’s in the Blue Book”-the

student manual and course list-“but they didn’t officially say anything.”

Ms. Tremil explained why the

news wasn’t widely circulated. “They did not notify each student by e-mail to

let them know that now the cut-off for the Dean’s List had changed,” she said.

“It’s because the feeling is that students are working the hardest they can

anyway. Are they going to work harder when they find out the requirements are

tougher? I don’t think so.”

But that’s not the point, said

Joe Lyons, a classmate of Mr. Ingersoll’s. Even if Columbia’s Dean’s List

standards are still below Cornell’s (about 3.65, depending on the program) and

Penn’s (3.7), isn’t there now the chance that potential employers will look

askance at students who fell off the Dean’s List, even if they kept up the same

level of grades?  “They could have done a

grandfather clause,” Mr. Lyons said.

Mr. Ingersoll, in fact, addressed the consistency problem in a

Nov. 15 column in the Columbia Daily

Spectator .

“I have a friend,” Mr. Ingersoll wrote. “I’ll call him Junior

Steve. In the past four semesters, Junior Steve has made the Dean’s List. But

Junior Steve, being the realist that he is, knows that no matter how many hours

he toils in the library, a 3.6 GPA is out of his grasp. So even if Junior Steve

manages to maintain the same grades he has for the past two years, he will be

left off the Dean’s List this term ….

“[When] Junior Steve writes his résumé, he will be torn between

listing or not listing his impressive feat of making the Dean’s List at Columbia.

If he does include his Dean’s List accolades on his résumé, then job recruiters

who don’t look at his transcripts will peruse said résumé and ask themselves,

‘What kind of slacker-deadbeat makes the Dean’s List his first four semesters

and not his last four?’

“Arby’s,” Mr. Ingersoll wrote, “won’t trust him to shave slices

of roast beef.”

Mr. Lyons also noted that the two undergrads on the Committee on

Instruction who had agreed to change the standards were both graduating seniors

last year.  That revelation, he said,

made him “sort of upset.”

Still, Mr. Mondelli-like a lot of his classmates-acknowledged

that, truth be told, it has usually been pretty easy for students to make

Columbia’s Dean’s List.

“If you’re not lazy, you can do it,” he said. “I guess it’s a

mark of distinction in the sense of your not being a lazy ass.”

“I hardly know anybody who

hasn’t made the Dean’s List in the past couple of times,” said Josie Richstad,

a sophomore English major. “I don’t know that many people with a G.P.A. below

3.0-except jocks.”

As if to prove Ms. Richstad’s point, a Columbia football player,

Philip Murray, had this to say of the Dean’s List change: “It doesn’t bother

me; I wasn’t exactly in there anyway.”

Ever Heard of Grade Deflation? Columbia Dean’s List Takes 3.6