Because it seems that everybody, and we mean (almost) everybody, at universities are achieving honors
An FKD Feature exclusive

The percentage of students graduating with Latin honors at universities is rising, and very few students are not receiving accolades of some kind. Since honors are usually based on a student’s GPA, it is the percentage of As, pass/fail classes and the relatively unusual handing out of Fs that are forming the issue.

The academic climate at colleges and universities is changing dramatically. Most markedly amongst the Ivy League and high-prestige universities, students are outperforming their predecessors and gaining higher marks and honors on graduation day because of it. More often than not, if you pick a student out of one of these schools, they are receiving honors such as cum laude, magna cum laude or summa cum laude.

It’s raining Latin honors

According to Middlebury Interim Provost Jeff Carson, “It’s time to reconsider [their] eligibility criteria [for honors.]” This admission is due to the fact that Middlebury College has granted anybody with a 3.4 G.P.A or higher Latin honors, and the number graduating with honors this spring was north of 50 percent.

According to the Wall Street Journal review of the criteria for earning honors and the percentage of the senior class that got the designation at schools in the top 50 of the WSJ/Times Higher Education ranking. “…honors designations have become close to the norm at many top schools.” The number of award-receiving students increased from 32 percent to 44 percent in the past decade at USC (3.5 GPA required), while the percentage went from 39 to 44 at Lehigh (3.4 GPA. required).

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

High Schoolers excel

Research from an administrator at the College Board and a doctoral student at the University of Georgia discovered that “47 percent of high-school students graduated with an A average in 2016, up from 39 percent in 1998.” It seems grade inflation is starting early and just keeps on rising into university and post-graduate studies.

What do grades even mean anymore?

Although elite schools tend to cap the rate at which students can receive honors, these rates vacillate widely from 25 percent at Columbia University up to 60 percent at Harvard University (Harvard hit 91 percent of students graduating with honors as early as 2001. But soon after, the school revised its process for selecting honors students). As a result, the question can be asked, How much do grades really matter?

Derrick Bolton, dean of admissions for Stanford University’s Knight-Hennessy Scholars graduate program, said that application examiners might take a glance at any honors received by applicants, but that they do not pay too much attention to them. He said their program — which has 3,601 applications for 50 spots this year alone — tend to pay much closer attention to those candidates who challenge themselves academically, even if that means that they received a B or two.

Attempts at fixing the issue

Many schools have attempted to rectify the problem by making their qualifications for receiving Latin honors even higher, but this carries with it some problems of its own: “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.

Other schools have tried to rein in the awards completely, instead focusing on more holistic achievement focusing on “the relative performance of students, rather than a fixed GPA cutoff.” This, at least at Georgetown University, has helped with the issue, reducing the amount of honors-receiving students by about half.


With grade inflation and the ease with which it seems so many university students are receiving Latin honors upon graduation, the question becomes what will this do to our current job market and how will it be reflected in employers’ choice of job candidates? Will the positions become ever more stringent in their difficulty to obtain or will the grades themselves become unimportant to employers?

One question being discussed is what is the relationship between high tuition, student debt and grade inflation?  With tuition and student debt skyrocketing, do schools of higher education feel they have to reward students more generously to make the payments worthwhile? Only time will tell.

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Header image: ShutterStock


Posted 07.23.2018 - 12:00 pm EDT