LAND O'LAKES — Two years' worth of high school graduations have Pasco schools superintendent Kurt Browning convinced that the race for the top spot in class is "insane."
It's just a label, he said. But some teens and their parents do "whatever it takes" to become valedictorian. The superintendent wants a culture shift.
"Everything is geared toward getting that title," said Browning, who has proposed replacing the ceremonial recognition while retaining class rankings. "Colleges and universities don't even care who is valedictorian or salutatorian."
His pronouncement is true, to an extent. As in most situations, the answer depends on whom you ask.
At Pasco-Hernando State College, for instance, it pays to be the valedictorian or salutatorian at a local high school. The college gives those students a $2,000-a-year scholarship, which covers almost all the expense of a full course load.
"A lot of valedictorians and salutatorians have many offers and opportunities," spokeswoman Lucy Miller said. "We're always thrilled when they choose to come to PHSC."
The University of Nevada-Las Vegas, like PHSC, admits students based on whether they meet set criteria. So from an admissions point of view, being valedictorian does not matter, admissions director Carrie Trentham said.
But the label does carry weight at UNLV. The school recently put in place a Valedictorian Scholarship, which covers almost the full cost of attending and gives students immediate access to the university's honors college.
As the name suggests, it's for valedictorians only. Being ranked No. 1 in class, as Pasco's top students would continue to be, counts.
"We felt like that was a group of students we wanted to go after," Trentham said, calling the scholarship a recruitment tool.
The issue grows more complicated at more selective schools.
The University of Florida, where 84 percent of admitted freshmen have a grade-point average of 4.0 or higher, considers the title a signal of success.
"We do look at that," spokesman Steve Orlando said. "But will not having it hurt? No. Not at all."
Citrus County students attend UF, after all, and that school district hasn't named vals and sals for nearly 15 years, Orlando pointed out. Citrus high schools use a cum laude award system similar to the one Browning is contemplating.
Pasco assistant superintendent Amelia Larson told the School Board that most top institutions of higher education, including Harvard University, are more interested in finding well-rounded students with stellar academics and leadership traits than in just picking No. 1 in a class.
That's generally accurate.
"Students should be reassured that they will not be rejected for admission solely on the basis of a few places in class rank," Harvard spokesman Jeff Neal said via email. "The overall pattern, upward trends, and especially the quality of the courses are far more important."
He noted that some high schools group students by decile or quintile, and then provide their actual GPA, to reduce anxiety while still giving colleges a relative ranking of where the teens stand.
Academic status is just one of many criteria students must submit for review.
"For example, extracurricular activities, community service and athletics are only a few of the variables taken into consideration by our Admissions Committee," Neal said. "In addition, the personal qualities and character of our students are of the utmost importance."
Duke University dean of admissions Christoph Guttentag shared that philosophy.
The university pays close attention to students' academic performance, including the rigor of courses selected.
"At the same time," Guttentag said, "it's also true that the small differences in rank or GPA don't have very much meaning to us."
The difference between being valedictorian and No. 10 in a class could be a single honors course, or an A versus an A-minus.
"Just because a difference is measurable doesn't mean it is significant," Guttentag said.
Students frequently make poor course selections because of class rank considerations, Guttentag observed.
"The best students aren't always the students with the best grades," he said.
At Duke, over half of the applicants don't even have a precise class rank, he said. "We're very comfortable with that."
Rice University vice president of enrollment Chris Munoz had a different point of view.
Rice, in Houston, saw its applicant pool grow by 15 percent this year, he said, leading to an admit rate of just 15 percent. Knowing a student's class ranking helps the selection committee choose among highly qualified candidates when the group is seeking reasons to deny.
"I've been in decision rounds where that's been noted … as a point of distinction for the candidate," Munoz said.
Like Duke and Harvard, Rice uses a "holistic" approach, considering many more aspects than an applicant's transcript. Students with perfect academic records and test scores might still not win a spot at these prestigious schools, Munoz said.
Still, he deemed it "inaccurate" to say that highly selective universities and colleges do not take into account student honors during the application process.
"To be salutatorian (or) valedictorian is an honor," he said. "It can matter. No. 1 is No. 1."
Browning said he wants to hear from all sides in this debate, which he called "purely a workshop topic." He stressed that he only wants to get rid of the valedictorian honor and commencement privileges, such as giving a speech and getting special recognition, and not the No. 1 class ranking.
If parents, students and others aren't in favor, he said, he will drop it. So far, he's received a handful of emails from parents, mostly against his proposal.
For now, the concept is scheduled to go to the School Board on July 1 as part of the new student progression plan.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected]