Graduating "With Honors" Becomes Meaningless As Colleges Hand Them Out Like Candy

Over half of students who graduated from Harvard and Johns Hopkins universities this year did so with cum laude, magna cum laude or summa cum laude honors or their equivalents, reports the Wall Street Journal

Just under that many students earned the once-meaningful designations at the University of Southern California, Lehigh, and Princeton. At Middlebury College, anyone with a GPA of at least 3.4 can add Latin honors to their brand new résumé, which was over half of students as of this spring. 

I’d say that it’s time to reconsider our eligibility criteria,” said Middlebury Interim Provost Jeff Cason.

According to a Wall Street Journal review of graduating seniors who earned designations at schools in the top 50 institutions ranked by the WSJ, honors designations "have become close to the norm at many top

The share increased to 44% from 32% in the past decade at USC, which requires a GPA of at least 3.5 for the lowest honor, cum laude, and to 44% from 39% at Lehigh, where students need at least a 3.4. -WSJ

A 4.0 does signal something significant, that that student is good,” said Stuart Rojstaczer, a former professor at Duke University who studies grade inflation. “A 3.7, however, doesn’t. That’s just a run-of-the-mill student at any of these schools.”

What's to blame? Academic researchers say grade inflation, not smarter students, according to the Journal. A University of Georgia researcher found that 47% of high-school students graduated with an A average in 2016, vs. 39% in 1998. Those students have been maintaining good grades in college. 

At Wellesley College, 41% of this year’s graduating class completed their degrees with Latin honors, which means a GPA of at least 3.6 at the Massachusetts school. That share has risen in the past two years, after being roughly one-third for much of the past decade. A spokeswoman said the school hasn’t pinpointed the cause of the increase. -WSJ

Nearly 59% of spring graudates from Johns Hopkins did so with "general honors," by achieving a GPA of at least 3.5. Ten years ago, that was around 46%. 

One Johns Hopkins graduate, Rushabh Doshi, learned that he'd made his way onto a list of honor students - only to notice that the list was four pages long

Mr. Doshi, who majored in public health and is heading to Oxford University to study medical anthropology in the fall, said he was proud of his academic accomplishment. But, he said, “It’s not something that holds too much weight.” -WSJ

Most top tier schools cap the percentage of the graduating class that can receive honors - however that number varies widely; from 25% at Columbia University to 60% at Harvard. After Harvard's number hit 91% in 2001, they revised their selection process. 

Northwestern University bumped its percentage of eligible seniors from 16% to 25% in 2010 - citing concerns over students losing out on graduate-school admissions because they were competing with peers from colleges with more lax honors requirements. 

And now they're meaningless...

The dean of Stanford University's Knight-Hennesey Scholars graduate program, Derrick Bolton, says that application readers "may glance" at honors designations, but don't give them much weight. Bolton says that the program - which received 3,601 applications for just 50 spots - "looks for more candidates who challenge themselves academically," even if that means they earned a dreaded "B" along the way. 

"The Latin honors are sending you a signal, but there’s noise," said Bolton. 

Moving the whole bar upward creates a problem where people learn they can do very little and get a grade-point average that looks very respectable,” said Richard Arum, dean of the University of California, Irvine School of Education.  -WSJ

And at Georgetown University, honors are now distributed by relative performance of all the students, rather than a fixed 3.5 GPA. Now, roughly 25% of graduates is handed one of the three Latin honors as opposed to over half the students receiving designations. 

Georgetown made the change “in order to ensure that Latin honors represent a mark of distinction.”


economessed Team_Huli Wed, 07/04/2018 - 00:40 Permalink

Totally agree with that.  Degrees are simply signaling devices anyway.  A way to institutionalize discrimination in the world of HR.  I have some of these degrees I speak of and I've worked with people who (apparently) are of a greater intellectual pedigree than me because they collected their piece of paper in the same field from an institution on the east coast of our country.  I will contend that there is NO RELATIONSHIP between how smart people are and the place where they obtained their degree signaling device.  Some of the smartest people I know obtained their education through solving their own problems (on small and large scales).  I don't know if they have a degree or not.   

Degrees are critical for thermometers, but of dubious utility to people having personal determination.

In reply to by Team_Huli

Tarzan Nature_Boy_Wooooo Wed, 07/04/2018 - 08:48 Permalink

Maybe there are ways to scam the system, but graduating at the top of your class is not easy.

After raising our three boys, my wife went back to finish college, in her 40s.  She is an administrator for the school board in purchasing/accounting, and after working for them for nearly 15 years, went back to get a her BA in Public Administration about 10 years ago.

She made straight As, graduated with honors, and delivered the salutatorian speech at graduation.

Nobody handed her a damn thing.  She worked her ass off for that honor.

In reply to by Nature_Boy_Wooooo

css1971 economessed Wed, 07/04/2018 - 03:22 Permalink

It used to be that a degree indicated both a burning interest in a field and a talent for it.

You see, progressives looked at the performance of people who had degrees and mistook that motivation and talent for the bit of paper.

Therefore everyone should have a bit of paper.


Reality is that most people in tertiary education today would have been better served with a high school education and professional (Not academic) qualifications appropriate to their field.

In reply to by economessed

chubbar Justin Case Wed, 07/04/2018 - 08:09 Permalink

Well, did that dentist need 4 years of undergrad work in studies that had nothing to do with the science/medical field before he went into dental school?

There are very few undergrad degrees that actually deal in knowledge necessary for the follow on career. Some do, engineering, IT fields for instance.

For the vast majority of jobs, the undergrad degree is worthless, none of the courses taken are even related to what the follow on career requires. THAT is ridiculous, imo. The person is much better off going and getting an education either directly from an employer or studying material directly related to the follow on career at the undergrad level.

Some countries start a medical school program right out of high school, for instance. I'd rather see a 6 year med school with emphasis on medical training the whole time, then see a guy with 4 years undergrad, most of which isn't related to medical training and then a 4 year med school degree. It is a win-win all the way around, imo, because it's cheaper and more time efficient.

In reply to by Justin Case

Stuck on Zero economessed Wed, 07/04/2018 - 10:07 Permalink

When I graduated from the university of California the top 5% of the students got Summa Cum Laude, the top 10% received Magna Cum Laude, and the top 15% received Cum Laude (Highest Honors, High Honors, and Honors). Regression formulae determined who was at the top of the class i.e. hard classes like math and physics ranked higher than Sociology. Typically a GPA of 3.2 would get you honors.

In reply to by economessed

Billy the Poet Hubbs Wed, 07/04/2018 - 00:14 Permalink

WIZARD: Why, anybody can have a brain. That's a very mediocre commodity. Every pusillanimous creature that crawls on the earth -- or slinks through slimy seas has a brain! 

Back where I come from we have universities, seats of great learning -- where men go to become great thinkers. And when they come out, they think deep thoughts -- and with no more brains than you have.... But! They have one thing you haven't got! A diploma!   Therefore, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Universitatus Committeeatum E Plurbis Unum, I hereby confer upon you the honorary degree of Th.D.


WIZARD: Yeah -- that...that's Dr. of Thinkology!

In reply to by Hubbs

glenlloyd Billy the Poet Wed, 07/04/2018 - 00:37 Permalink

When everyone can get one does it really mean anything?

It's the free education analogy, although that is a somewhat different issue it leads to the same thing. When it's free it's not worth anything. But in this case it will cost a lot and if they saddle tax payers with the cost (let's hope not) people gonna be mad.

I also liken it to a new car. Today any schmoe can buy a new car and ride around and look cool and what not, but that's only because auto makers have to sell their products and they have to have liberal lending standards or they're stuck with what they built. But funny thing, they found out that if they finance that vehicle they can raise the price! And all they have to do is 'qualify' any Tom Dick or Harry to buy it and it's out the door and counted as sold.

It's a shame though, cuz cars / trucks are getting to be more expensive than houses for the average person but you can't tell anyone that, they'll just go buy it anyway and saddle themselves with seven years of wealth down the tubes.

Education was supposed to be about differentiating yourself from the other guy; giving yourself an edge that will get you in the door over someone else. Funny thing is that now the education doesn't even do that unless you were in the top 10% of your class and to make it worse if your white and male I wouldn't count on even excellent grades doing much to help you.

In reply to by Billy the Poet

land_of_the_few glenlloyd Wed, 07/04/2018 - 01:57 Permalink

The grade-jacking has gone hand-in-hand with fee-jacking and ludicrous increases in "student" entry numbers, many of whom are barely capable of critical thinking at office clerk level. Seen this maybe even going back as far as the deep 1980s recessions. It's commerce for pretty pieces of paper, not education. It's also used by govts to hide unemployment by keeping young adults on "courses" and out of the job market for years, preferably permanently.


In reply to by glenlloyd

WallHoo glenlloyd Wed, 07/04/2018 - 04:40 Permalink

Actually the point of public education is to bring down costs and increase quality and quantity.


Nowdays there are more people with more knowledge and thats the point.Im not saying that there are more smart people just more educated people.


So all in all its mission acomplished for me.


I mean what would you prefer,paying your doctor 20 dollars per visit or 100 dollars based on the rearness of the degree?


The disparity between"educated"people and"non educated"people is closing as more and more enter the ranks of those that have a specialisation.


Also look at the economy,we are not in a guilded age anymore,anyone can open a bussines or work for a wage.The same thing applies for education,costs for specialised workers have gone down.

In reply to by glenlloyd

J S Bach rockstone Tue, 07/03/2018 - 23:05 Permalink

Even 40 years ago, the late great Revilo P. Oliver used to write and speak about the "Diploma Mills" which had taken prominence in our post-WWII culture.  That incredible scholar knew what was afoot in the money-schemed-academic world.  Its ultimate goal was what we are witnessing today... the disintegration of the very qualities, standards and peoples who created the institutions themselves.  Chaos and devolution are the paths of the Adversary's children.  It is up to the children of The Creator to thwart and defeat their destructive aims.

In reply to by rockstone

EddieLomax J S Bach Wed, 07/04/2018 - 05:54 Permalink

Same here in the UK.  The labour government set a target for 50% of the population to go to university, something that really only suits 5-10% at best.

After the financial crash it all came to a head, we could not afford it so faced a choice.

We could either only government fund courses that were useful, or create a vast pool of debt and lend it out to everyone who wanted to go to university forcing the useful courses to plunge their students neck deep in debt.

Its easy to see which route we took, now people are 30-40k underwater before they have even started a decent paying career, and they are supposed to save up +40k to pay for the deposit on the house.  Fantasy economics caused by kicking the problems down the road.

In reply to by J S Bach

Endgame Napoleon rockstone Wed, 07/04/2018 - 20:53 Permalink

Laude, God almighty, that’s a lotta overachievers. Maybe, the professors are too preoccupied with bringing in research dollars, chasing promotions, rather than distinguishing the quality of work turned out by students, which should be their main job. The parents are paying to get their snowflakes a piece of paper that distinguishes them from other job seekers. 

In reply to by rockstone

Cardinal Fang rjdsaldanha Wed, 07/04/2018 - 10:38 Permalink

Interesting link, but forgive me, I don't see the relevance to the topic at hand or the top post it is in reply.

My personal favorite piece of 20th Century American composition is Copeland's Appalachian Spring, my ears were opened one year as I listened to it while the robins outside my window harmonized with it. I was blown away with Copeland's ability to mimic the robins in his music.

But I think the topic is American's lack of ability to connect science, art and beauty to every day life.

In reply to by rjdsaldanha

Chris2 SweetDoug Tue, 07/03/2018 - 22:56 Permalink

They should work hard and learn more. It's somethin' and can put it on blank resume.

You can still do well if you are talented and have a great work ethic, my kid did thank God.

My kid went from entry level to managing the kids in less than a year. He's got them in at 6:30 am and out no earlier that 6pm.

They are all making money now and they adore him.

In reply to by SweetDoug