Today the College will recognize the top 20 percent of students in the annual Sarah and James Bowdoin award ceremony.
Sarah and James Bowdoin Day is one of the few occasions at which grades are openly celebrated at the College, though even on this special occasion GPAs are not disclosed. Some students have reacted against what they perceive as the reinforcement of academic competition.
Recognizing scholars based on achievement relative to the rest of their class, as opposed to those who have earned a certain GPA, is said to minimize the impact of grade inflation in the distribution of awards. Some students, however, disagree and argue that a floating cutoff forces students to compare themselves against one another rather than striving for personal academic achievement.
"I think it should be based off a GPA, like 3.75, because it makes it less competitive," said Matthew Hillard '12.
Michael Del Muro '12 agreed that using a percentage to determine Sarah and James Bowdoin Scholars increases competitiveness.
"I don't like when it gets super-competitive in college," he said. "This isn't where you're supposed to be competing against your peers. [In doing so] you're not benefiting yourself—you're only damaging your education...when it's just a [GPA] cutoff its more of a challenge for yourself."
College policy requires that GPA data is not released, a measure which some argue goes a long way toward eliminating the competitive element of academics.
When the College introduced the 20 percent stipulation, explained Associate Dean of Academic Affairs James Higginbotham, "there was an attempt to be able to make much better comparisons across campus."
"If you look at ways grades have changed over time in terms of inflation...whenever you determine a break off point [for the Dean's List,] as the overall grade averages fluctuate, that [point] becomes a less clear marker. For instance, if you were to have 3.5 [as the cutoff] 15 to 20 years ago, that might have been a more interesting distinction than it would be now," said Higginbotham.
Some students agreed that withholding specific GPA requirements and cutoffs benefits the College's academic environment.
"There's a good bit of grade inflation going on, so absolute GPA numbers are becoming less meaningful...doing it on a relative space makes sense to me," said David Plotkin '11.
"I think there are benefits to both ways," said Turak. "If the GPA were fixed, it would give people a tangible goal that they could strive for, [but] using a percent and not releasing GPAs decreases competitiveness."
Higginbotham remarked that using a percentage guards the distinction from being awarded to a larger number of students every year as grade inflation rises.
"If I put a static line on a grade point average and grade averages continue to inflate, more and more people are going above the line, and the percent goes up...the 20 percent allows you to move with the student body," he said.
"A lot of honors are relative," said Alisha Turak '12. "This way they can keep a relative constant number of people [on the list]...it gives people more of an opportunity to shine."
Bowdoin's peer schools differ on whether academic awards should be determined based on a relative scale or a fixed GPA cutoff. Williams and Middlebury both determine their Dean's Lists based on fixed GPA cutoffs, 3.5 and 3.3 respectively. Bates awards students in the top 25 percent of the class based on semester grades. Colby also uses a relative scale, awarding those in the top 30 percent of their class each semester.
The ceremony is part of a long-standing tradition of the College to honor those on the Dean's List, though the rules governing qualifications for Sarah and James Bowdoin awards have changed over the years.
Phi Beta Kappa, the Almon Goodwin Phi Beta Kappa Prize and Sarah and James Bowdoin Book Award winners will also be recognized.
Sarah and James Bowdoin Book Award winners are students who earned a 4.0 GPA. This year's winners are Luoqian Peng '13, Benjamin Ziomek '13, John Bunke '12, Brittany Strohm '12, Turak, Jack Lake '11, Plotkin, and Teerawat Wiwatpanit '11. Graduates of the Class of 2010 who qualified for Sarah and James Bowdoin Awards will receive certificates or Book Awards in the mail.
"It's always nice to be recognized for your hard work," said Turak. "I think that Bowdoin requires a lot of work and it's very difficult to maintain a high GPA. It's a nice way for the College to recognize the people who put in all the effort and time to get up in the top 20 percent."
"The Sarah and James Bowdoin Day ceremony is just one of many ways in which we celebrate student achievement at Bowdoin," wrote Dean of Academic Affairs Cristle Collins Judd in an e-mail to the Orient.
Under the current rules governing Sarah and James Bowdoin Awards, students who studied abroad in the previous academic year are not eligible for the awards.
The ceremony was originally instituted in 1941, when it was called James Bowdoin Day. At that time, the College awarded students grades of High Honors, Honors, Pass and Fail. Students earning Honors or High Honors for 75 percent of their courses and earning no failing grades qualified for the Dean's List, according to the College Catalogue from the 1968-1969 academic year.
The College later changed the regulations to award students who receive Honors or High Honors in four regularly-graded courses. When the College transitioned to a letter-grade system, students on the Dean's List were required to earn grades of A or B in at least four courses. The grading system was then revised to include minus and plus grades, which Higginbotham said allowed grades to be "more easily calculated numerically."
"When there [were] numbers of letter grades, it was too hard to distinguish between one student and another—you could have a number of people with the same number of As and Bs," said Higginbotham.
The Sarah and James Bowdoin ceremony will be held today at 4 p.m. in Morrell Gymnasium.