Opposition to Commerce student rankings grows

Undergrads report dissatisfaction with ranking system

Moving forward, Commerce admin is open to considering student suggestions.

Terry Zhang, Comm’ 18, says academic rankings are worth a second look.

Every June, Zhang and a little over 1,400 Queen’s Commerce students check their Commerce Portal — a special School of Business account — to see their ranking. They receive two numbers: their personal ranking and the total number of students.

Recruiters traditionally take more interest in hiring higher-ranked graduates. Ideally, the ranking system provides a simple method for discovering new talent while motivating students to succeed in a competitive environment. 

Ranking has spread to a number of competitive programs across Canada, including engineering programs at the University of Toronto and the University of Waterloo.

However, some students disagree with the practice, claiming it adds unnecessary stress in an already competitive program. 

Despite his high ranking as a student, Terry Zhang has appealed to the Smith School of Business in the hopes of curtailing the practice of ranking students. He said he plans to launch a student survey next week and has begun constructing a case to put forward in the coming months.

“GPA rankings aren’t a true indicator of a student’s ability,” Zhang said. 

“Academic rankings [don’t] reflect all the activities you do outside of school, all the startups you’re working on, new skills you’re learning, sports you play. It’s very inaccurate to categorize students off one aspect of their university life.”

Zhang said rankings reinforce “unhealthy competition” in the program. 

“With the ranking system, a lot of people think if I help this person, they might get better and [pass] me. That’s the unhealthy thinking that creeps in. There’s less collaboration,” he said.

Academic rankings take only grades into account. Students’ grades are compiled into an average and then compared to others to create a rank.

“There’s no motivation for you to do better because if you just know your GPA, you could be at a 3.0 and bump it up to 3.2 and feel good about it. But if you’re [ranked] 400 and you know all your work will only push you up the [rank] 370 or something, what’s the point of working harder?” he said. “It’s discouraging.”

Zhang said he believes the majority of students agree. However, there hasn’t been any formal action and he hasn’t yet seen the results of his survey.

“The general sentiment is rankings are unhealthy. A lot of students realize it’s very competitive, very cut-throat. You can see that [in] general conversations in the classrooms and hallways,” he said.

A 2013 National College  Health Assessment (NCHA) survey of Queen’s students reported that 58.4 per cent of respondents believed academic stresses were “traumatic or very difficult to handle.”  In response, Queen’s has brought the number of outreach counselors at the university from three in 2012 to eight in 2013. 

They have also increased the promotion of mental health services and expanded awareness efforts.

Queen’s Health and Wellness psychologists declined to comment on any potential effects of ranking Commerce students, citing patient privacy, although The Journal didn’t inquire about specific students. 

Lori Garnier, Executive Director of the Commerce Program, says the Commerce program isn’t out of the ordinary.

“Academic ranking of students is common across the whole university sector, and is commonly referred to as a ‘Dean’s list.’”

She added that admin is open to considering student suggestions.

“We are reviewing this process, in consultation with our students and student leaders.”

As a Dean’s Honour List with Distinction recipient and one of the highest ranked students in the commerce program, Stephane Gosselin stands by the ranking system.

“Honestly, I don’t think they’re as bad as they’re made to be. I think they’re a great motivator,” Gosselin, Comm ’18, said, adding that his marks improved considerably from high school to university with the extra motivation provided by rankings.

Gosselin said he disagrees that rankings make the program too competitive.

“The temptation would be to say that it would get a lot more competitive and in putting yourself up, you put others down. But the commerce program is structured around collaboration,” he said. “Ranking makes it worth your while to work with people to improve both your rankings.”

He said different students appeal to potential employers in their own ways.

“It all depends on what your objectives are. If your objectives are something where you need that involvement in extracurriculars to get, there’s a lot of jobs out there that focus more on that. Whereas [when] your focus is to get your academics up, the recruiters from the companies are going to look at that the most.”

A high ranking comes with its privileges. Higher-ranking students can expect to be prioritized while applying for international exchange, to potentially be awarded the fourth-year medal for having the highest GPA, and, if a student releases their ranks to employers, they increase their employment chances after graduation over lower-ranked students.  

Rankings have been subject to debate in recent years. A 2010 Queen’s Business Review article  argued that “there are a number of viable alternatives.”

A suggested alternative in the article was keeping students ignorant about their rankings and making ranks available to recruiters through the career centre. Other suggestions included course awards and an emphasis on group awards.  

Speaking with The Journal, Allison Cecilio, Comm ’18, said she was disappointed to receive a rank at the end of first year.

“My GPA was pretty good. I was very proud of myself. But when my ranking came out — you try so hard and you realize it wasn’t what you thought.”

She said the system poorly represents students and discourages lower to middle-ranked students.

“Rankings are more beneficial to the top 4.0’s and above. It’s helpful for them to present themselves to recruiters and set themselves apart for a future, for a career,” Cecilio said.

As a Commerce student, she said she noticed that competition between students often leads to negative environments.

“If you live in an all-Commerce house, they sometimes have this negativity towards each other. They’ll try to not help each other and it’ll get competitive in households and groups. At the back of your head, you’re thinking, ‘they might get a better ranking than me.’” 

While Commerce is naturally competitive, Cecilio and other students worry that it harms the program’s sense of community. She says that became clear in her demanding second-year marketing course.

“People started planning out their marketing groups last year, finding the best of the best. It was really stressful. Some sections have stellar groups and you wonder: how do you compete?” she said.

“It depends who you surround yourself with. But rankings play a part in a dog-eat-dog world.”

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