We’ve all seen it in our lives, from handing out participation trophies to children at sports games to the refusal to disclose admissions information at elite colleges like Penn, efforts are being taken at virtually every level to decrease competition in academic and athletic spaces. While increased collaboration, support, and camaraderie are, of course, beneficial, doing so at the expense of recognizing merit is harmful and problematic in the long term.
Therefore, it was to no one’s surprise that the University recently announced that the 2022-2023 school year will be the last where dean’s list recognition is awarded to Penn students. In an email to the Penn student body, Paul Sniegowski, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, explained that this was because they found that “the Dean's List designation is redundant and does not reflect the breadth of students' academic achievements, which are better captured by Latin Honors and a variety of other school and departmental awards and honors.”
Given the relatively arbitrary reasoning provided for the removal, it seems more than likely that Penn’s underlying motives were other than represented. These motivations seem to be aligned with broader trends towards getting rid of all – or at least most – merit-based recognition at all education levels. This has been evident in accusations of “increased gender and racial gaps” stemming from meritocratic practices, and educators deliberately withholding information about merit scholarships from students, notably in 17 schools in Northern Virginia.
Efforts like these completely overlook the motivational benefits that come from being rewarded for one’s achievement and have carried over from high schools to colleges. College junior Abby Adu explained this saying, “I feel like for many of us, it encourages students to excel in both semesters of the school year and serves as recognition of our academic achievements. I understand why its importance has diminished over time but I still think it’s a nice goal to work towards and an accomplishment many students take pride in.”
These interim rewards are somewhat unique to the dean’s list. While Latin honors 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. It provides a short-term goal to strive for, and an opportunity to restart and try again after a difficult academic year. While Latin Honors could be seen as more holistic in the way that it considers all years of one’s Penn experience in their totality, that simply means that it serves a different purpose than the dean’s list, not that it is objectively better.
Beyond motivation, moves like this decrease the feeling of winning or losing among students, setting them up for failure. Loss, and experiencing a lack of achievement, can often be as vital to future potential as rewarding successes. In a study of gold medal Olympians, all of the athletes identified previous losses as crucial to their later victories.
For young children, excessive praise can have even graver implications. Research has found a link between parental over-validation, childhood narcissism and excessive fear of failure. Among college students, Jean Twenge, author of “Generation Me”, describes this participation award culture manifesting in an entitled generation willing to perform just the bare minimum and expect to be praised equally to their peers despite it.
Wharton first year Adrian Rafizadeh expressed his concerns about the precedent this set. He said, “It’s troubling that we continue to dismantle objective standards of excellence under the guise of holistic fairness or equity. Achievement should be rewarded.”
All of this is not to say that Penn cannot be toxically competitive, or overwhelming at times. The school is filled with thousands of very high-achieving students with exceptional resumes and even grander career goals. It can often be a pre-professional pressure cooker and is certainly ripe for reforms in some areas. However, removing the dean’s list does absolutely nothing to decrease tension or increase support between students.
The dean’s list, which does not cap the number of students that can receive the award every year, does not stifle student collaboration in the way class curves and other strategies used by professors to improve student achievement do. Unlike many other forms of academic gratification and reward, it is also not something particularly salient among the student body — I have yet to hear one person say they are losing sleep over not making the dean’s list.
If Penn wants to take action to improve campus culture, it should focus on improving mental health resources, increasing the length of breaks, making tutoring more accessible, and prioritizing learning and quality instruction. Instead, removing the dean’s list is a performative policy change that does little aside from taking a step towards devaluing merit writ large in academia.
The Penn bubble often takes on many forms. It seems with this move and others, its latest version is one that insulates students from the merit-based inequalities of the real world. However, the sad reality is no dean can step in when your colleague gets a promotion and you don’t.
LEXI BOCCUZZI is a College junior studying philosophy, politics, and economics from Stamford, Conn. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.