A record 36 summa cum laude graduates led Class 2017 at the University of the Philippines Diliman campus last Sunday, topping last year’s 30 who graduated with the highest honors, and 29 the year before. Last year, 325 graduated magna cum laude (with high honors) and 936 cum laude (with honors). Last Sunday’s crop had 337 and 1,016, respectively.
Gone are the days when UP honor graduates were only a select handful. In 1975, yours truly had the distinct honor of being the lone summa cum laude graduate produced by the entire UP system — not from the main Diliman campus, but from its second largest campus in Los Baños (where only two women had preceded me, both in the 1940s). Two years later, UP Diliman produced five, and 30 years later (2005), there were 10. The number of UP summas first exceeded 20 in 2010, when there were 25, and this year’s 37 (including one from UP Los Baños) sets the newest record harvest of summas.
Some trace this seeming explosion of honor graduates to “grade inflation,” seeing diminished prestige in the Latin honors. A netizen commented that summas are now “sampu sampera” (10 for a centavo). A year ago, I wrote of a seeming “brain boom” being behind the then-record 30 summas (and hundreds of magnas and cum laudes) that UP produced, rather than just grade inflation. Both factors appear to be at play, but many indications give credence to the claim that people are indeed getting smarter over time. Today’s “millennials” are smarter than their predecessors, and many reasons are offered to explain why.
Political scientist James Flynn documented the widespread increase in IQ test scores over time, in what is now widely cited as the “Flynn effect.” He further noted performance gains across all age groups (it’s not just the millennials), and that scores have improved most in problem-solving questions—arguably the aspect of intelligence that matters most. Various studies by psychologists have since explained the Flynn effect with factors such as improvements in early childhood education, increased sophistication of tests, better test-taking skills, improved nutrition, and even the removal of lead paint from schools. Earlier studies showed the Flynn effect to be stronger at lower IQ ranges (a decline in “stupid” people over time), but recent studies show it happening just as well at the other end of the scale (there are also more geniuses now).
Grade inflation can’t entirely explain the seeming proliferation of Latin honors, then. In fact, UP Diliman deliberately tightened up its General Education curriculum in 2011, believing the ease of getting honors to be due to the freedom to choose courses that are “uno-able” — that is, easy to get the top grade of 1.0 in. But six years hence, no discernible decline in honor graduates has happened, so something else must be driving it. Are professors getting more lenient with grades over time? Are “terror” professors going extinct? There seems no plausible reason to expect so. And so the puzzle remains.
Grade inflation has in fact been observed at Harvard University, considered the top university on the planet. In 1955, only 15 percent of graduating seniors obtained GPAs above 3.00 (using the 4-point grading scale adopted since 2004). In 2001, more than 90 percent did. This had led to honors inflation as well, when fixed GPA cutoffs were the main basis for awarding honors. Now, there are at least two differences in the way Harvard and UP determine honor graduates: Harvard goes by a target percentage of the graduating class (5 percent summas, 15 percent magnas, and 30 percent cum laudes), and varies the GPA cutoffs accordingly. UP has stuck to the traditional 1.20, 1.40 and 1.75 weighted average grade cutoffs for summa, magna and cum laudes, respectively. In awarding Latin honors, Harvard considers other factors beyond GPA such as performance in concentration (major) courses, performance in an oral honors exam, and qualitative factors as well; UP does not.
Even so, this year’s crop of top UP graduates will be well worth watching. They and their recent predecessors will
prominently shape our nation’s future, sampu sampera or not.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.