Graduating Seniors Rack Up Honors While They Can

Jordan B. Woods ’06 is worried that there will be no pot of gold at the end of his rainbow.

Woods applied to be a social studies concentrator thinking that he—like the 90 percent of Harvard seniors who graduated with honors his freshman year—would most likely also receive a diploma with honors from the College.

But the Class of 2004 will be the last to graduate under such a generous honors system.

While 90.6 percent of this year’s seniors will hear Latin honors follow their names as their degrees are announced at this afternoon’s House ceremonies, 40 percent of next year’s graduates will receive no honors whatsoever.

Thanks to a new cap on honors approved by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences in May of 2002, magna and summa awards will be limited to 20 percent of the class, and no more than 50 percent of the class will be allowed to graduate summa, magna or cum laude.

A final 10 percent of seniors will be eligible for the cum laude degree in general studies from the College—an honor awarded solely on the basis of grade-point average (GPA)—if they don’t receive honors recommendations from their concentrations.

The establishment of an honors cap was the culmination of the fervor over honors and grade inflation that began in 2000-2001, after a series of stories in The Boston Globe focused nationwide attention on the alleged problem.

A number of professors and administrators voiced concern that the lack of differentiation among marks took away the motivation for excellence that grades are designed to inspire.

Even without the cap on honors in place, the impending change and the discourse on Harvard’s grading policies may have affected honors recommendations for the Class of 2004.

In the past few years awards of high honors have been dropping.

While 36.2 percent of the Class of 2001 graduated with magna honors, that number dipped to 34.4 percent the following year, and the Class of 2003 boasted only 30.5 percent magna honors.

“Probably the faculty is beginning to think in terms of the new honors policy,” Dean of the College Benedict H. Gross ’71 wrote in an e-mail last June.

But according to the preliminary numbers from Monday’s Faculty meeting, the Class of 2004 has not continued this downward trend, with 33.4 percent of graduating seniors earning the second-highest honors recommendation.

While today’s graduates are counting their lucky stars, the restriction has some sophomores and juniors fuming.

Woods says he thinks the cap will make students more likely to take easier classes and enter easier concentrations because they will be focused on maintaining the GPA necessary to graduate with honors.

“The biggest disadvantage is it’s a deterrent to take intellectual risks,” he says.

Woods also worries that the new policies will lead to a more competitive atmosphere in Harvard’s classrooms. He says he looked around the room of his Social Studies 10 tutorial with the knowledge that statistically only 4 out of 8 in the room might graduate with honors—and that it makes him worry about his future prospects for getting into law school.

But Director of the Office of Career Services Bill Wright-Swadel says he does not think that the fact that fewer Harvard graduates will be able to write “with honors” on their resumes will affect their success in landing jobs and spots in prestigious graduate schools.

“A change like that, when it occurs at Harvard, is something that all the people who are looking at talent from Harvard will know about,” he says. “When the system changes, they know to look differently at the numbers and things. That doesn’t have an impact on whether a student gets an opportunity or not.”

Some seniors commiserate with their less fortunate younger peers.

“My opinion is if you deserve an A, you should get it,” says John P. Kachichian ’04, an economics concentrator who expects to graduate cum laude. “What if 90 percent deserve it?”

Venu A. Nadella ’04 says he thinks the College should not be so concerned with restricting honors.

“Just give it to more people,” he says. “Who cares?”

Apparently, Kenan Professor of Government Harvey C. Mansfield ’53 does.

Mansfield says that Class of 2004 graduates should not consider themselves lucky at all to receive their degrees before the institution of the cap.

“I don’t think it’s lucky to benefit from grade inflation,” Mansfield says. “It detracts from your honors when 91 percent of your class gets them…The change in grade inflation will be a big boon to our best students.”

Gross says he believes that the change in honors recommendation policy will give more meaning to the distinction of graduating with honors, but concurs that the Class of 2004 has fortunate timing, sneaking through prior to implementation—just not as lucky as his graduating class in 1971.

“I agree that you are lucky,” he says. “Of course, when I was a student we had finals cancelled two years in a row. That was luck.”

—Staff writer Anne K. Kofol can be reached at kofol@post.harvard.edu.