In the next few days, Columbia College will admit a select group of the senior class into Phi Beta Kappa on the basis of the strength of their academic records prior to senior year. These students deserve to be commended for their academic achievements. The award itself, however, will be skewed toward math, economics, and physics majors, whose professors give out more grades of A-plus than do those in other departments. The University takes pride in its ability to distinguish its top students, but it does a disservice to those who just miss the cut. This disparity in grading is part of a larger problem in the ranking and honors of Columbia students, both within the University and with respect to other top-tier schools.
Although both science and humanities classes award grades of A-plus to a small fraction of students, quantitative courses lend themselves more readily to this top distinction. Where performance is measured by correct solutions to problem sets and exams, students can effectively earn grades of A-plus simply by scoring very well. Where students are graded on class participation and papers, however, there is no concrete way for a student to earn an A-plus. When graduation honors are conferred, humanities students who are no less deserving than the top physics or math students will be less likely reach the highest ranks. Columbia College should eliminate the A-plus from all courses in order to remove this inequity.
The problem is worsened by the relative scarcity of graduation honors at Columbia in comparison with other universities. Whereas Columbia caps all Latin honors at 25 percent, Harvard conferred honors to over 50 percent of its graduating class this year. Judging from historical GPA cutoffs for Columbia honors, a student at the University of Pennsylvania who receives magna cum laude may have a lower GPA than a student who graduates Columbia College without any honors. Employers may not realize that Columbia students are less likely to receive honors than are their peers at other universities.
To solve this problem, the University should make departments primarily responsible for conferring Latin honors, so that students can be evaluated relative to those in the same major. An equally reasonable alternative would be to institute standard GPA cutoffs throughout the college. This would engender consistency, as students in an academically strong class year would not be subjected to an unfairly high standard in the determination of honors. Regardless of which approach is taken, Columbia should award more honors than it currently does. At a time when universities are criticized for grade inflation, it may seem strange to call on a school to become less selective in distinguishing its students. Nonetheless, as long as other Ivy League schools honor a large proportion of their graduates, Columbia should look after its own.