Honors: Now With More Competition

Graduating with honors has just gotten harder-—but is it fair?

Lela A. Brodsky

Last year's commencement morning exercises.

The words roll right off the tongue. “Oh me? I graduated from Harvard. With honors.”

It used to be that most of us could start practicing our delivery long before we actually got the precious degree. This June, however, the University will implement new standards that will slash the number of honors recipients by almost half and reveal a large percentage of us as total posers.

In May 2002, the faculty approved changes to the system which will cap honors designations at 60 percent of each graduating class—a far cry from the 90 percent who left this place with Latin insignia on their diplomas when designations were based on GPA cutoffs. This year will be the first that seniors will graduate under the new system, and some members of the Class of 2005 have already begun to protest, citing confusion and lack of transparency.

Hani N. Elias ’05, like most Social Studies concentrators, went into the field assuming it was honors-only. He says that word didn’t reach the students that changes were going into effect until late last year, and he is unsure whether the hard work he did on his thesis will translate into the Latin honors he thought he was guaranteed.

No one in the Class of 2005 can know for sure what the new rules will mean come June, but unavoidably, about 600 seniors who would have gotten honors last year will leave Harvard with only a diploma.

The administrators behind the change believe this is actually a good thing. The new policy, they argue, will make students worry less about grades and think further ahead about their education.

Assistant Dean of the College John O’Keefe, a staunch defender of the new policy, admits that the higher standards are bound to have some side effects. But those are hard to know before the change takes place. The first few classes to swallow the bitter pill will serve as guinea pigs for the new system.

HONORS, HONORS EVERYWHERE

When did honorifics get so commonplace?

“Grades have been going up since they were invented in the late 19th century,” O’Keefe says.

Things really took off in the 1970’s, when mean GPAs and honors rates climbed steadily before leveling off in the mid-1990’s. By then, a huge majority of students were graduating with some form of Latin honors.

The flood of honors continued unchecked until the 2001-2002 academic year, when the Educational Policy Committee (EPC) began one of Harvard’s periodic reviews of its grading practices. Discussions with each department revealed “considerable concern” with the system, launching internal deliberations about how to proceed, former Associate Dean of the College Jeffrey Wolcowitz writes in an e-mail.

Not long after, the Boston Globe publicized “Harvard’s dirty little secret” in a two-part front-page investigative piece called “Matters of Honor.” The story set off a storm of controversy as other Ivy League officials delighted in publicly mocking the Harvard honors system. The College knew that something had to be done. A series of proposals were eventually approved by the faculty in a unanimous vote.

O’Keefe insists that the changes were not made “because we wanted to look good in the New York Times.” Rather, he argues, it was a shift “motivated by concerns from faculty and students that wanted Latin honors to mean something to the world outside.”

As for those losing out because of the new rules, administrators and department heads alike express some sympathy. After all, had the Class of ’05 been born one year earlier, they would have had a much better shot at earning honors. But university officials stick to their guns, maintaining that the changes are necessary.

“A world where we’re giving honors to 90 percent of the class is a world where nobody’s getting honors that are meaningful at all,” O’Keefe says. Now, he reasons, each level of honors has that much more value for its recipients and the employers and graduate schools who take them.