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.”