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.